2021 Austrian GP FP3 - Verstappen goes fastest in the final session before qualifying

Max Verstappen managed to top the times in the final session before qualifying in Austria. The two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas would sit just behind the Dutchman in second and third, with them looking to make up some time in the two hours before the penultimate session of the weekend.

Big news and fast starts 

The big news broke a number of hours before the session even started, with Lewis Hamilton signing a two-year contract, keeping him at Mercedes till at least the 2023 season. The decision was made to complete the extension earlier than last time, with Hamilton signing his 2021 contract back in February of the same year. Toto Wolff stated "We are relishing the battle we have on our hands this year – and that’s why we also wanted to agree this contract early, so we have no distractions from the competition on the track. "

The session got off to an uncharacteristically fast start as far as FP3 goes, with numerous cars taking to track as the lights went green in the final session before qualifying. A large number of the drivers elected to use the prototype 2022 tires, with the fastest time of the users being the two AlphaTauris of Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda. The prototype tires are said to be more robust than the current edition of the Pirelli tires. The times set were very tightly packed, with 0.757 of a second separating first place Gasly from eighth place Carlos Sainz.

The only driver not to be on the prototype tire was the Alpine of Fernando Alonso, who was sat in tenth position, just behind the Sauber of Kimi Raikkonen. He was soon joined by Lando Norris, however, the young Brit was using a fresh set of the red-walled soft tires. His first flying lap would get off to a difficult start, with him running wide on the entry to turn one, catching the underside of the car on the large 'sausage curb' on the exit. Norris will be looking to extend his run of solid points finishes, especially with him securing his first podium in F1 at this event last year.

Norris's pace would pay off, seeing him jump the two Alpha Tauris to go top of the timings at the halfway point in the session, with a time of 1:05.7. Another Brit using the soft tires to great effect was George Russell, who set a sterling time to go sixth in the Williams. Russell is someone who will be watching the Hamilton contract with interest, given he is seen as next in line to take over from one of F1's greatest ever in Hamilton.

Near misses

As the session approached the halfway stage, just 0.8 of a second spanned from the top time of Norris to 17th position that was currently occupied by the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, who was still using the prototype tires. 

The first yellow flag of the session flew just after the 30-minute mark, bought out in sector three by Tsunoda. The Japanese driver managed to escape a near-session-ending crash by catching a monumental spin whilst coming through the latter phase of the lap, managing to escape with only a flat-spotted set of soft tires. The second off of the session belonged to Nikita Mazepin who left the track on the exit of turn four.

A return to the status quo

Alpine seemed to be off the pace throughout the session, with both cars languishing towards the bottom half of the field, leading to speculation about the French team's run plan. Alonso was sat in 19th and Esteban Ocon could only do one place better in 18th. Alpine's closest rivals Aston Martin were having a much better session with birthday boy Sebastian Vettel occupying the sixth position, with Lance Stroll just behind the German in seventh, which could compound Alpine's misery at the end of the session.

When Ocon could get a lap together, he could only manage a best time of twelfth, with five minutes remaining in the session. Alonso managed a much stronger time, putting his car in seventh place with time dwinderling. 

By the end of the session, the regular business had been resumed, with Verstappen taking the top spot in the standings by over half a second from Bottas and 0.6 of a second away from Hamilton, spelling a close qualifying session to come.