For the first time this weekend, Mercedes found themselves heading the field, as Valtteri Bottas clocked the fastest time in Saturday's afternoon's Free Practice 3.
Bottas' 1:42.742 - set on supersoft tyres - came at the perfect time, the German marque finding their feet in Baku just in time for Qualifying. Kimi Raikkonen ensured that Ferrari remained near the top, in second less than one-hundredth behind his countryman, whilst Lewis Hamilton showed an upturn in pace, three-tenths behind in third.
However, Raikkonen's performance aside, the session didn't go perfectly for the Scuderia; championship leader Sebastian Vettel's session was disrupted after minimal running with a hydraulic issue - causing him to miss the Qualifying simulation runs. He ended up 12th.
Mercedes 1-2 early on
Mercedes looked good from the off, Bottas showing Hamilton the way by a second, both on the soft tyres. Hamilton started to slide - thus meaning that Raikkonen and Sergio Perez took the challenge to the Finn, but neither could get perilously close to him. As was previously expected, the early top 6 order was dominated by Mercedes powered cars - Raikkonen's works Ferrari the anomaly.
At his peak, before the aforementioned hydraulic issue ceased his session, Vettel climbed up to fifth, six-tenths off Bottas - but on the supersoft tyres.
Whilst the German vacated his car and garage early, the rest of the field turned their attention to low-fuel, Qualifying runs.
Hamilton and Bottas asserted their dominance during the first few attempts, the duo passing first and second between themselves, until Raikkonen went fastest of all, with a 1:42.837. Although, that lasted all but a few seconds, Bottas going quickest and staying there.
Red Bull troubles
Despite suffering a relatively quiet session, Daniel Ricciardo found himself in fourth at the end of the running, just over half-a-second off of Bottas' time. His teammate Max Verstappen endured a more trying hour, complaining about a peculiar noise near the rev limiter before eventually stopping out on track in the last 10 minutes - believed to be down to a hydraulic failure. A sharp change in fortunes after the Dutchman topped both sessions yesterday.
Esteban Ocon put in another solid session to claim fifth, whilst Perez languished in tenth for Force India.
Williams are potentially looking at a better weekend this time around, Felipe Massa seventh, two places and three-tenths ahead of the improving Lance Stroll. However, the hour nearly came to a crushing end for the Brazilian, narrowly missing whacking the rear end against the protruding Turn 8 wall during what he would call a 'controlled slide'.
Toro Rosso's early Saturday afternoon was infinitely better than their Friday, Daniil Kvyat again sneaking into the top ten, with Carlos Sainz in 13th. However, times aside, both drivers managed a suitable 44 laps between them, split marginally in Sainz' favour.
Palmer on fire - literally
Yet, Renault have some work to do. Nico Hulkenberg had a trouble-free hour, ending up in 11th, but Jolyon Palmer stopped on track in the opening minutes with smoke pouring from every crevice at the back of the car. Exactly what he didn't need when short of confidence and under plenty of pressure. He ended up an unrepresentative 20th.
Another man under constant pressure is Yusuke Hasagawa - head of Honda's Formula One programme. And whilst neither Fernando Alonso or Stoffel Vandoorne suffered their usual technical problems, both McLaren's were firmly in the bottom half. Alonso, running an old power unit found himself in 14th, a fraction under two seconds off the pace, with Vandoorne in 16th, a further four-tenths back.
Haas found themselves on the receiving end of more Romain Grosjean rants, with Kevin Magnussen having a few moments as well. The duo ended up 17th and 15th respectively.
Finally, Sauber - still looking for Monisha Kaltenborn's replacement - propped up the rest of the field (bar the broken down Palmer), Marcus Ericsson having issues with energy recovery, but still found himself ahead of Pascal Wehrlein.
|4||Daniel RICCIARDO||Red Bull||1:43.287||+0.545||24|
|5||Esteban OCON||Force India||1:43.344||+0.602||21|
|6||Max VERSTAPPEN||Red Bull||1:43.614||+0.872||16|
|8||Daniil KVYAT||Toro Rosso||1:43.908||+1.166||21|
|10||Sergio PEREZ||Force India||1:44.138||+1.396||22|
|13||Carlos SAINZ||Toro Rosso||1:44.401||+1.659||23|