• Australian Grand Prix - FP3

Hamilton puts McLaren on top ahead of qualifying

ESPNF1 Staff
March 17, 2012
Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time of the weekend ahead of qualifying © Sutton Images

Lewis Hamilton set the pace in the final practice session ahead of qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix after Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel both spun off.

Romain Grosjean was second fastest in the Lotus with Mark Webber third in the Red Bull, making it difficult to draw any concrete conclusions from the first fully dry session of the season. To add to the confusion the top six cars were split by little over 0.3s as the drivers got their first proper taste of the soft Pirelli tyres, which will be the compound of choice in qualifying.

The Mercedes duo led the way for most of the session after switching to the soft tyres much earlier than their rivals. They finished the session fifth and sixth, behind Jenson Button's McLaren in fourth, but all the drivers ahead set their times later in the hour when the track was yielding more grip.

Vettel was seventh fastest but had his spin before he had a chance to sample the soft tyres. He was setting a decent pace on the mediums, less than 0.3s slower than the Mercedes on the soft, when he touched the grass under braking for turn six. The car spun through 180 degrees before beaching itself in the gravel trap and forcing the reigning world champion to take a long walk home to the pits. Nothing was damaged, apart from Vettel's pride, so it's likely he'll be straight back on the pace in qualifying.

Schumacher's spin came later in the session at turn nine when he lost the rear of the Mercedes over the bumps on corner entry. He too came to an undignified halt in the gravel, but made sure the marshals took special care of his car, which looks quick despite the spin, as they craned it away.

Pastor Maldonado, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo rounded out the top ten as Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso all look capable of challenging for Q3. Kimi Raikkonen was less impressive in the second Lotus, nearly a second off his team-mate and 12th overall. The Force Indias also failed to live up to expectations Nico Hulkenberg 14th and Paul di Resta 17th.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment was quite how slow the Ferraris were. Once again the car looked like a handful and Fernando Alonso, who finished 16th and over 1.5s off Hamilton's pace, was struggling to keep the rear of the car in check through the final sector. Felipe Massa was 18th fastest, just 0.3s ahead of the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen and had a spin at the penultimate corner.

However, it is qualifying that counts, and with a dry session looking likely, it should finally give a true representation of how the cars stack up.