Max Verstappen hit back after Friday running to top final practice ahead of qualifying.
If Friday was a Mercedes masterclass then Saturday evening in Saudi will have been a very positive session for Red Bull.
Lewis Hamilton ended FP3 in second, 0.2sec off his rival while Valtteri Bottas was stuck down in sixth as both struggled on the soft tyres.
AlphaTauri carried on its strong showing from Friday with Yuki Tsunoda ending the session fourth-fastest with Pierre Gasly one place back in fifth but with a time on the medium tyres.
Here is how finaal practice happened ahead of the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
With all of the teams eager to get track time under their belts there was no shortage of takers as the lights went green for the start of first practice.
Lance Stroll set the initial pace with Mercedes remaining in the pit lane. The Aston Martin driver headed up Lando Norris before his time was bettered by Bottas to slot into P2 in the opening minutes of the session.
Max Verstappen was wasting no time before getting up to speed on the Saudi streets. The Red Bull driver set a 1min 33.614sec to immediately set the pace to the tune of 0.7sec over Daniel Ricciardo until the Dutchman’s second flying effort. He continued to lower the target to beat on subsequent laps as the track continued to rubber in.
His 1min 31.736sec lowered the benchmark further on hard compound tyres. His charge continued as he eventually lowered the top time to a 1min 30.014sec to leave the rest of the field chasing his efforts.
Verstappen’s quick start left the rest chasing with the two Mercedes drivers 0.2sec behind the Dutchman’s effort with half of the first practice session over.
His aggressive use of the kerbs required a check over by the team after a wide moment at Turn 22. His car was given the all-clear and he headed back out on the soft tyres.
Jeddah’s street circuit got the Finnish approval from Bottas as he set a 1min 30.009sec to go fastest of all on the red-walled soft Pirelli tyres, shading Verstappen by just 0.005sec.
As team-mate Verstappen flew, Sergio Perez appeared to struggle to acclimatise to the new street circuit. The Mexican was over a second off of the session-topping times, left in P13 with just under 20mins remaining of the session.
Kimi Räikkönen had a close call with the walls on his flying lap as replays showed the Alfa Romeo driver came close to disaster out of Turn 27 entering the pit straight.
Hamilton was the next to lower the time to beat, setting a 1min 29.786sec to go fastest of all with 15mins remaining of the first session. Team-mate Bottas followed suit to turn it into a Mercedes one-two, slotting into second place.
“Good afternoon Michael, just wanna say a great job from the circuit guys getting the circuit clean overnight,” Mercedes sporting director Ron Meadows informed FIA race director Michael Masi after concerns the circuit might not be ready in time.
Questions over whether the circuit would be ready in time for Formula 1 had been raised ahead of the race weekend but measures were carried out on Thursday to ensure the circuit was prepared sufficiently ahead of any live sessions.
“To be honest, yes, we had a lot of problems that we saw and we also have a lot of landscaping inside the track and on the directly on the seating side where we have restaurants and cafes and a lot of construction work till the last minute going on,” Carsten Tilke told Motor Sport ahead of the race weekend.
“Construction work causes also a lot of tasks and so on and this constantly flows onto the track and this is one of the main tasks. We have five different cleaning machines running non stop on the track but still they’re working on some areas.
“So some new dust and sand comes over the tracks. So this is really a big thing which is where we try to do everything possible to clean it challenge is to make sure that the track is really clean.
“Also if you have a lot of construction works on the sides they often they have to really go on the track to do with the cranes and some are so on sometimes also have we really have to take care about the oil and something like this because it’s old machinery.”
The Mercedes duo continued to set the pace into the final minutes with improvements coming from the likes of Alpine as Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon moved into the top 10 while Ferrari duo Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz went P7 and P6 respectively in the closing stages.
In the end, Hamilton narrowly edged the session by just 0.056sec from title rival Verstappen.
Full classification from FP1 in Jeddah 👇
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 3, 2021
Verstappen set the early pace with a 1min 29.290sec, with Yuki Tsunoda an impressive 0.3sec further back, but both were soon beaten by Mercedes.
A 1min 29.018sec on the medium tyre sent Hamilton to the top of the time sheets with a lap just six hundredths slower meaning Bottas filed in second.
George Russell had Frank Williams favourite Top Gun quotation – “I feel the need, the need for speed” – adorning his halo, but the Grove car couldn’t manage better than 17th, 1.8sec off the pace, in the first half of the session. The effort was particularly brave in light of the Brit reporting he had a long brake pedal.
Vettel went off track trying to improve on his 15th-fastest time, as Gasly attempted similar, but 12th was all he could muster for his efforts, 1.2sec off Hamilton.
Space was at a premium as cars jockeyed for position, but Alonso finally found a gap to leap to fourth with 1min 29.441sec.
Both Ferraris improved on the soft compound, Leclerc and Sainz going eighth and ninth respectively, with Sergio Perez getting ahead of them as he clocked a 1min 29.768sec. All three were then shuffled down by a flying Ocon – a 1min 29.555sec putting the Frenchman fifth.
Verstappen then managed to go faster on the soft tyre, but he was now fourth and 0.1sec away from the pace, the impressive Gasly now lodged in third with a rapid time just eight hundredths off Hamilton.
The former then took a cool-down lap in an attempt to go faster on the next, telling his team on the radio he didn’t “care” about harming long runs – suggesting the Dutchman sees victory achievable more through qualifying pace than canny race strategy.
Using the soft compound, Sainz managed to better his time to go seventh, a 1min 29.589sec taking him there.
Drivers then moved onto the long-run simulations, cars plumping for either medium or hard tyres, but there was disruption for Nikita Mazepin, who spun out of Turn 2, causing Hamilton to take avoiding action.
Things were even worse for Leclerc, who brought out a red flag by destroying his car at Turn 22, leaving his mechanics with a sizeable rebuild job over night.
That shunt brought the session to the end, with Hamilton and Bottas locking out the top two spots respectively, with Gasly and Verstappen behind.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 3, 2021
In the cool conditions of final practice, there was no great rush to get out on track due to the unrepresentitive conditions as the sun set.
Haas, Aston Martin and Kimi Räikkönen were the only takers in the opening five minutes, the Finn set a 1min 31.378sec to set the initial benchmark to beat on softs.
Mercedes emerged from the garage on the hard tyres, with two sets available to both of its drivers for the weekend.
Bottas set a 1min 30.394sec to take the top spot but team-mate Hamilton had to bail out of his flying lap after catching traffic in the form one of the Haas drivers in the first sector.
Verstappen was the last driver to exit the garage but opted to run the soft tyre compound, with Red Bull having just a single set of hard tyres available to them. Meanwhile, Hamilton shot to the top of the times, lowering the target to a 1min 29.605sec.
Two slow warm up laps from the Dutchman was an appoach that put him P3 on his first flying effort, behind Hamilton and Carlos Sainz.
Team-mate Perez went top for a matter of seconds on his soft tyres before Hamilton’s second effort restored Mercedes to the top. Bottas slotted into P2, 0.2sec behind his team-mate with 20 minutes of the session gone.
Hamilton’s top time dipped to a 1min 28.314sec to put almost a second on the rest of the field. Pierre Gasly had been on the fringes of the top 10 until his lap on mediums slotted him into P2, 0.4sec off of the Mercedes driver.
Verstappen dropped that gap to 0.3sec as he went second-quickest with 34mins remaining still on the soft tyres while Perez moved up to P4. Bottas was down in seventh over a second off his team-mate by the halfway stage.
As others pitted, Verstappen remained on track for another flying effort on his older soft tyres and went quickest overall. A 1min 28.212sec was a tenth quicker than his title rival.
Aston Martin looked like it was struggling for any form of pace. Both Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll were stuck at the bottom of the standings in P17 and 18 respectively, ahead of only the Haas duo.
The Canadian’s woes continued as he was forced to pit with a suspected puncture.
After swapping to the softs, Bottas improved his time but was only up to P6, 0.8sec off of Verstappen’s time. Hamilton found a personal improvement in the first sector but had dropped 0.3sec in the middle section of the lap before bailing out of his attempt.
A second flying effort from Bottas brought no improvement for him. Hamilton meanwhile was involved in two near misses with Gasly first and then Nikita Mazepin, with both having to take avoiding action on hot laps as Hamilton on a cool down.
Race director Michael Masi said he would be dealing with the team and the marshals due to a lack of flags for both drivers to warn them both of the closing speed.
In contrast to his earlier approach, Verstappen hit his next soft-tyre hot lap right out of the gate and found time to better his table-topping effort to a 1min 28.105sec.
Yuki Tsunoda moved AlphaTauri up to P3 with just under 10 minutes remaining, a tenth up on his team-mate on softs.
Verstappen went quickers till by a whisker. He improved by 0.005sec on his second effort in the closing stages of the session while Mercedes’s struggles continued.