Max Verstappen topped Friday afternoon practice for the Styrian Grand Prix in a tightly contested three-way battle between Red Bull Racing, Mercedes and Racing Point.
Verstappen, winner at the Red Bull Ring in 2018 and 2019, edged 2020 winner Valtteri Bottas by just 0.043s, with Sergio Perez a further 0.174s back in third.
Perez had spent much of the session in control of the top spot on the time sheet, with Racing Point displaying formidable pace early. His teammate, Lance Stroll, ended the afternoon fourth after finally putting together a clean lap without exceeding track limits.
Stroll had made things hard for himself by going beyond the boundaries of the circuit in the final sector multiple times on the day, with several of his laps deleted by the stewards.
He wasn’t the only one, however. With race control taking a stern position on track limits, Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel were all among those who had their names decorate the official messages board during the session for crossing the line.
For Hamilton it was indicative of an out-of-form afternoon. The Mercedes driver was only sixth quickest and 0.688s off Verstappen’s time, a gap large enough for McLaren’s Carlos Sainz to slip into to take fifth in the final order.
Alex Albon was similarly having a difficult day, less than a week after almost storming to victory late in the Austrian Grand Prix. The Thai driver complained in the morning of dramatic understeer and in the afternoon added snappiness in high-speed turns to his list of grievances. A couple of spins — one out of Turn 3, another at Turn 8 — and seventh in the classification illustrated his unhappiness in the cockpit.
Lando Norris ended the day eighth quickest, but F1’s newest podium-getter learned shortly before the session began that he’ll suffer a three-place grid penalty for overtaking under yellow flags during FP1.
Charles Leclerc was the highest-placed Ferrari driver in ninth and more than a second slower Verstappen’s headline lap, his times demonstrating little confidence in Ferrari’s hurried upgrades, brought forward from next week’s Hungarian Grand Prix as a matter of urgency. Teammate Sebastian Vettel was even worse off, almost a further entire second behind Leclerc in 16th place, splitting the Williams drivers and conclusively ahead of only the laboring Haas drivers.
Aside from his lowly time, the German’s session was noteworthy for the raggedness of his handling and a moment clattering over the curbs at Turn 7, causing minor damage to his recalcitrant SF1000.
Esteban Ocon rounded out the top 10 for Renault, fractionally behind Leclerc. The Frenchman was the only Renault driver to undertake any meaningful running after Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his RS20 and crashed on his second lap of the afternoon.
Ricciardo red-flagged the session 15 minutes in with a big shunt exiting the penultimate corner. The Australian carried too much speed to the apex and lost the rear, spinning backwards through the gravel and into the tire barrier.
He was largely unharmed, though he appeared to carry a limp as he emerged from his RS20 and walked to the medical car.
The damage to the Renault was extensive, and with spare parts coming at a premium early in the season and in the middle of a tripleheader series of races, the required repairs will be a concern to the team.
There was some concern ahead of the afternoon session that the wet weather forecast for Saturday could lead to the cancellation of final practice and qualifying, which would mean FP2 would be used to set the grid for the race. However, with Sunday’s forecast clear and sunny, qualifying would almost certainly take place on the morning on the race instead, meaning Ricciardo and others unsatisfied with their Friday results are likely to have the opportunity to recover.