Charles Leclerc reaffirmed Ferrari’s place at the head of the field with the fastest lap of final practice on Saturday afternoon in Azerbaijan.
Leclerc set his best time, a 1m41.604s, late in the session when the track was at its fastest and when most of his front-running rivals had already set their quickest times, but even a lap set by the Monegasque at the very beginning of the practice hour would have guaranteed him a top-two finish.
Sebastian Vettel was the next-best driver in the sister Ferrari, just shy of 0.2s behind his 21-year-old teammate.
A whopping 1.2s gap buffered the Ferrari duo from the rest of the field, with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen presenting as the Scuderia’s quickest rival. However, the Dutchman had the advantage of a slipstream on the long front straight on his quickest attempt, distorting the result.
Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton followed for Mercedes, the Finn holding a 0.1s advantage over the championship leader, but they were more than 1.4 seconds adrift of the leading Italian team.
Both Red Bull Racing and Mercedes spent the session fine-tuning their downforce levels after analysis of Friday data suggested Ferrari’s advantage was down to running more rear wing, but it appears neither team managed to find a better setup compromise to close the gap overnight.
Of potential intrigue is the role the powerful Baku slipstream will play during qualifying in chasing down the Scuderia, with Red Bull Racing a potential candidate for experimentation given Pierre Gasly, who finished last in the session, will start from the pit lane after failing to attend a weighbridge check at the end of FP2.
Behind the front-runners Toro Rosso made a case for itself as the best midfield team of the round, with Daniil Kvyat snatching sixth place from Haas driver Kevin Magnussen and teammate Alex Albon.
Racing Point’s Sergio Perez ended the afternoon session ninth ahead of Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen.
Daniel Ricciardo was the highest-placed Renault in 11th, the French marque struggling to find a setup that could keep the tires in the correct temperature window — a particularly tricky problem to solve given the time the rubber has to cool down the long straight leading to the crucial first turn.
Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, who will carry a 10-place grid penalty into qualifying for breaching his allocation of power unit parts, was 12th fastest ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. Lance Stroll followed for Racing Point, just ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean.
Robert Kubica led Williams teammate George Russell in 18th and 19th, the latter running a brand-new chassis after his freak drain cover crash destroyed his survival cell in FP1. The team confirmed he also required a new energy store and control electronics unit as part of repairs.
Pierre Gasly rounded out the field after a session focused on race performance given his pit-lane start.