Formula One: Russell fastest as Verstappen has problems

AFP , Saturday 25 Nov 2023

George Russell topped the times for Mercedes ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris in Saturday’s third and final practice ahead of the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

George Russell
Mercedes' British driver George Russell sits in his car during the third practice session for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit in the Emirati city on November 25, 2023. Photo: AFP


On a hot afternoon at the Yas Marina Circuit, Russell’s pace raised Mercedes’ hopes of clinging on to second place in the constructors’ championship as Ferrari, four points behind, struggled to keep pace.

Three-time world champion Max Verstappen was also off the pace in his Bull as he wound up sixth in the unrepresentative conditions that offered few real clues to the outcome of qualifying later Saturday or Sunday’s race.

Russell was quickest in a time of one minute and 24.418 seconds to beat Norris by 0.095 seconds with Oscar Piastri third in the second McLaren, three-tenths adrift, ahead of Williams’ Alex Albon, Charles Leclerc of Ferrari and Verstappen.

Esteban Ocon was seventh for Alpine ahead of Logan Sargeant in the second Williams, Yuki Tsunoda of Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu, the top ten separated by only eight-tenths of a second.

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton was 12th in the second Mercedes, one place behind Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull, and two-time champion Fernando Alonso was 14th for Aston Martin.

Verstappen was unhappy with his car set-up throughout the session. “The car is bottoming again, jumping,” he grumbled in the final minutes. “I don’t know what is going on…”

After Friday’s furore over Verstappen’s attempted passing move on the two Mercedes driver in the pit-lane exit tunnel, the race stewards had reacted to protests aired during the drivers’ briefing and banned the practice.

The session began in hotter conditions than the opening day with an air temperature close to 30 degrees Celsius and the track at 47 with Hamilton, unusually, among the early starters together with Sainz and both Aston Martins.

All of them needed mileage after their lack of Friday action, even in the unrepresentative conditions relative to Sunday’s ‘twilight’ Grand Prix, and Sainz, who crashed in FP2, quickly set an early fastest lap on softs.

Perez soon improved on that before Russell clocked 1:25.163 on fresh soft rubber to take top spot as Verstappen slotted in third with his first effort, complaining of ‘quite a loose rear, sliding a lot’.

Russell was one of the few top drivers who ran in FP1, when ten rookies took part, and as most of the field returned to the pits, after 20 minutes, he stayed out to trim his time to 1:24.829.

For Russell and Hamilton, protecting Mercedes’ four-point advantage ahead of Ferrari in their scrap for second place in the constructors’ championship, there was also the motivation of claiming the team’s first win and first by a British driver this year.

After a lull, the major contenders returned for the final half hour’s practice, Verstappen rising to third and then second, but he remained half a second adrift of Russell while Ferrari continued long run work on medium tyres, running 16th and 17th, 1.2 seconds adrift of the pace.

With 12 minutes remaining, Albon went second on softs while Verstappen pitted again for front suspension tweaks, the Dutchman keen to find a better set-up in his bid for more winning records – as the rest improved in a frantic finale.

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