Sebastian Vettel beat Lewis Hamilton to the fastest lap of the final free practice session at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but a late-session red flag left the competitive order unclear going into qualifying.
The Ferrari driver had a 0.361-second advantage over this Mercedes title rival, with Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen less than a tenth of a second further behind.
Track conditions had changed markedly since Friday, with the circuit dirtier thanks in equal parts to blustery weather and also oil dropped by a failed engine during the earlier Formula 2 race.
The wind was causing drivers most trouble, particularly given its propensity to change direction, making the high-speed sections especially difficult. Gusts of between 17 and 32mph were recorded during the session, and on multiple occasions drivers found themselves swept into the run-off areas.
Turn 16 – the last effective corner on the track – was a major problem spot, sending drivers wide and spoiling their run down the long straight, which would then compromise their next lap as a result.
Most managed to avoid disaster by inches, but Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin wasn’t so lucky, crashing his car at Turn 3 and triggering a suspension of the session.
The Russian would be ambitious to blame the wind, however – Sirotkin simply appeared to be carrying too much speed into the corner but opted against bailing for run-off area. He wiped off the right-front corner of his car, giving his mechanics much work to do in the two-hour break before qualifying.
The red flag came at an inopportune time for drivers planning on leaving their qualifying practice laps to the end of the session, and by the time track action resumed there was just three minutes remaining – time enough to set a single flying lap.
Verstappen was the big improver, moving from seventh up to fourth, but his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, abandoned his lap after a scrappy middle sector. It meant that five of the six drivers from the top three teams were separated by just 0.428s and that the competitive order remained unclear going into qualifying.
Sergio Perez continued Force India’s strong weekend with sixth ahead of Haas’s Kevin Magnussen. Lance Stroll put his Williams eighth on the timesheet, ahead of Esteban Ocon in the second Force India and the crashed-out Sirotkin.