Max Verstappen reasserted Red Bull Racing’s qualifying credentials with a dominant one-lap display in Saturday morning practice for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
Verstappen had several laps deleted for exceeding track limits before setting a flying lap on fresh soft tires late in the hour and logging an unbeatable time of 1m14.982s, almost half a second quicker than anyone else.
But the competitive picture ahead of qualifying remains uncertain, with Lewis Hamilton the quickest Mercedes in third and 0.557s off the pace, the front-running pair separated unexpectedly by McLaren’s Lando Norris after a late flier of his own.
Differences in power unit settings could explain some of the margin, but the Mercedes also looked more on edge in the final practice session than it did during its more serene Friday running.
Sergio Perez finished fourth and almost 0.6s shy of his teammate, while Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes was eighth and almost a full second adrift.
Several drivers had times deleted throughout the session despite clarifications from race control overnight that fewer corners would be monitored for infringements. Only drivers running wide at the exits of Turns 9 and 15 will be at risk of time deletion; the apex at Turn 13 and the curbs through the Variante Alta chicane will no longer be enforced.
However, not only did the looser rules not prevent the long string of deletions, but the circuit’s natural deterrents were fully exercised by drivers running wide all session, thanks in part to the unusually cold and low-grip Imola weather, with the ambient temperature hovering at around 51 degrees F at the start of the hour.
Verstappen jumped his car over the high curbs at Turn 13, forcing him back to the pits for precautionary checks of the underside of his car, while Alfa Romeo teammates Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi skirted through the gravel at Rivazza and Tamburello respectively.
Nicholas Latifi was the only member of the field to find the barriers, the Canadian carrying too much speed through Villeneuve before sliding through the gravel and nudging the wall with 34 minutes remaining.
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The Williams driver appeared to be beached in the stones, triggering red flags, but he had managed to keep his motor running and eased his way back onto the circuit less half his front wing. He crawled back to the pits for the session to resume six minutes later.
With green flags waving Charles Leclerc unleashed his Ferrari to put himself fifth and 0.78s off the pace, making up for his late second-practice crash yesterday that wiped off his front wing and front-right corner.
But Ferrari will be wary of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, who was a further 0.15s back in sixth but with a time set on the slower medium tire. It was another suggestion that the Red Bull-owned Italian team will contend high up the order this weekend after a similarly impressive Friday showing.
Carlos Sainz followed in seventh in the second Ferrari ahead of Bottas, and Alpine teammates Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon were closely matched 1.2s off the pace to round out the top 10.
📻 "Traffic paradise"
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Yuki Tsunoda made several sweary radio outbursts about traffic through the session on his way to 11tth ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll in 12th and Sebastian Vettel in 14th, the teammates split by McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo.
Williams drivers George Russell and Nicholas Latifi were separated in 15th and 17th by Haas driver Mick Schumacher. Alfa Romeo pair Giovinazzi and Raikkonen were 18th and 19th, while Haas’s Nikita Mazepin kept it clean through the session to finish 20th.