Doha: Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton dominated Qatar Grand Prix third practice with Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen off the pace ahead of qualifying later on Saturday.
Bottas topped the time sheets with a 1min 22.310sec, a record fastest lap at the Losail circuit’s inaugural Formula One weekend.
Hamilton, who goes into this third last race of the season 14 points behind his arch rival, took second at 0.078sec.
Verstappen appears to have work to do to trouble the Mercedes men as he took third but some 0.341sec off Bottas’s effort.
Qualifying for the 20th race of 2021 gets underway under floodlights at 17h00 (1400GMT) with Bottas bidding for his third pole in as many weekends.
The Finn, who moves to Alfa Romeo next season, fronted the grid in Mexico and Brazil, but was overtaken around the first corner in both races by Verstappen.
The Dutch driver duly won in Mexico, but was swept aside by a Hamilton on fire in Sao Paulo last Sunday.
BOTTAS DOMINATION ALL THE WAY
Earlier, Bottas lapped fastest for Mercedes in floodlit free practice on Friday as Formula One prepared to race in Qatar for the first time with the title battle entering its decisive phase.
Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen set the early pace in an exploratory and dusty daylight first session at the Losail circuit on the outskirts of Doha before Bottas ended on top in the evening.
“Today started nicely with the setup, the balance was pretty good in the first run with only minor tweaks to be done for FP2 (second practice),” said Bottas, whose seven-times world champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton was fourth in both sessions.
“I would say that’s the ideal way to start a weekend on a new track.”
The Finn, out of the title reckoning and heading to Swiss-based Alfa Romeo at the end of the season, lapped in one minute 23.148 seconds compared to Verstappen’s earlier best of 1:23.723.
Bottas was 0.350 faster than Verstappen in the second session.
“Today Valtteri looked like the man out there, he was quick on a single lap and very good on a long run,” said Mercedes trackside engineering head Andrew Shovlin, who was pleased to see the track performing to expectations.
“If the car’s working well, then we’ll get the car working well with Lewis. So for us it’s been an encouraging Friday from that point of view.”
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly was second in both practices with Verstappen, who leads Hamilton by 14 points with three races remaining, third in the evening.
Hamilton was 0.786 slower than his title rival in the opening session when he ran wide over kerbs at turn 14 before pitting with a damaged front wing.
“Are we slow on the straight or something?” the Briton asked over the radio. “No, not particularly,” race engineer Peter Bonnington replied.
Hamilton said after the second session that he would be looking for some answers overnight.
“I don’t know how big the gap is but I’m off, I’m definitely not close,” he said.
“The track’s quite nice, no real issues. At the moment I’m a little bit slow so I need to figure that out tonight.”
Russian rookie Nikita Mazepin missed the evening session as the Haas team replaced his chassis following damage sustained in the earlier stint.