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Formula 1

The fascinating qualifying fight Australian GP FP3 has teased

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Final practice at the Australian Grand Prix has teased a fascinating Formula 1 qualifying session with Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes separated by less than a tenth of a second.

Red Bull’s domination of the first two rounds of 2024 has included two comfortable pole positions for world champion Max Verstappen, at least on paper.

If the team looks vulnerable anywhere it is over a single lap and returning to the scene of quite prominent braking and tyre warm-up issues in 2023, Red Bull and Verstappen face a real threat of being beaten in qualifying for the first time in 2024.

Charles Leclerc topped final practice for Ferrari as Red Bull’s closest challenger proved more than a match on both the medium and soft tyres.

Verstappen complained his brakes were not "biting" early on in FP3, then a less than convincing final multi-lap run on softs ended with a much more emphatic last-gasp lap that briefly put the three-time champion fastest.

But Leclerc then went even faster, shading Verstappen by just 0.020s - proving that even when the RB20 got into a sweeter spot with its brakes and tyres, Ferrari’s SF-24 was still extremely potent.

That Sainz backed up Leclerc in third, only half a tenth behind Verstappen, further reinforced that point. And there might be a slightly unexpected third team in the mix for qualifying too.

Mercedes had a tricky Friday in Melbourne, a track that had been kind to its troublesome first two ground-effect cars in 2022 and 2023, with Lewis Hamilton particularly troubled by set-up changes that backfired badly.

Significant adjustments for FP3 seem to have paid off, though, as Hamilton lapped within a tenth of Leclerc to end the session fourth fastest, with team-mate George Russell right behind him on the timesheets.

Mercedes has made bright starts to both weekends so far in 2024 in Friday practice before fading as the events progressed so this is its most encouraging final practice session heading into qualifying yet.

If Red Bull is vulnerable then a repeat of the FP3 result in qualifying will give it work to do to continue its early streak of one-two finishes in Sunday’s grand prix.

Sergio Perez was only three tenths off the pace and 0.280s slower than Verstappen, which is more or less in the window expected of Red Bull’s second driver, but such is the apparent competitiveness of the opposition Perez was only seventh fastest.

Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso edged ahead of Perez into sixth, while McLaren’s home hero Oscar Piastri was less than a tenth behind in eighth.

Behind, Lance Stroll in ninth and Lando Norris in an underwhelming 10th in the second Aston and McLaren respectively only underlined the pecking order that had been established early in the season with five teams clearly the quickest.

Outside the top 10, attention was on Alex Albon who has taken over his team-mate Logan Sargeant’s car for the remainder of the weekend following Albon’s own crash in final practice.

Williams has stood Sargeant down due to not having a spare chassis in Melbourne and is banking on Albon as the better bet for a points finish on Sunday. He started that bid, with a brand new set of engine components, by going 13th fastest in final practice as he played catch-up after missing FP2.

Practice 3 result

PosNameCarBest TimeGap Leader
1Charles LeclercFerrari1m16.714s
2Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda RBPT1m16.734s+0.020s
3Carlos SainzFerrari1m16.791s+0.077s
4Lewis HamiltonMercedes1m16.806s+0.092s
5George RussellMercedes1m16.886s+0.172s
6Fernando AlonsoAston Martin-Mercedes1m16.997s+0.283s
7Sergio PérezRed Bull-Honda RBPT1m17.014s+0.300s
8Oscar PiastriMcLaren-Mercedes1m17.087s+0.373s
9Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1m17.341s+0.627s
10Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1m17.490s+0.776s
11Yuki TsunodaRB-Honda RBPT1m17.673s+0.959s
12Valtteri BottasSauber-Ferrari1m17.752s+1.038s
13Alex AlbonWilliams-Mercedes1m17.759s+1.045s
14Guanyu ZhouSauber-Ferrari1m17.876s+1.162s
15Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1m17.920s+1.206s
16Nico HülkenbergHaas-Ferrari1m17.941s+1.227s
17Kevin MagnussenHaas-Ferrari1m17.961s+1.247s
18Daniel RicciardoRB-Honda RBPT1m17.963s+1.249s
19Pierre GaslyAlpine-Renault1m18.390s+1.676s
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