SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) – Charles Leclerc set the pace in Saturday’s final practice session, putting Ferrari at the top of the timesheets ahead of qualifying for the Formula One Austrian Grand Prix.
The Monegasque lapped the undulating 4.3-kilometre long Red Bull Ring circuit in a scorching one minute, 03.987 seconds.
Championship leader Lewis Hamilton, 36 points clear of Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas in the standings, was second 0.143 seconds adrift.
The Briton, gunning for his seventh win from nine races and fifth in a row, had set the pace on Friday with the fastest time in the opening session. Leclerc had gone fastest in the afternoon but had not been quick enough to beat Hamilton’s effort.
Bottas, who started the last two races in Austria from pole, was third, 0.234 seconds off Leclerc’s pace. Sebastian Vettel was fourth, 0.263 seconds short of his team mate’s best.
Max Verstappen, winner last year in Austria after neither Mercedes made it to the finish, was a distant fifth for Red Bull at their home race. McLaren’s Lando Norris was sixth.
Pierre Gasly in the other Red Bull, who complained of a loss of power during the session, was seventh ahead of McLaren’s Carlos Sainz.
The Spaniard, along with Toro Rosso’s Alexander Albon, is set to start Sunday’s race from the back of the grid after taking power-unit related penalties. Nico Hulkenberg is also set to drop five places with Renault opting to fit his car with an upgraded engine.
Antonio Giovinazzi was ninth in his Alfa Romeo ahead of Daniil Kvyat who rounded out the top ten for Toro Rosso.
Leclerc looked strong throughout the hour-long session, locking horns with the Mercedes drivers, for top spot. His time was also the fastest of the weekend so far.
The back and forth raised hopes of a close qualifying battle after Mercedes dominated a soporific race last Sunday in France.
Nevertheless the German marque, who have won each of this season’s eight races, six of them in one-two formation, are still favourites to win their 11th race in succession on Sunday, which will see them equal McLaren’s modern era record set in 1988.
The final hour of practice unfolded without any major incident, a stark contrast to Friday’s crash-marred day of running, with Bottas and Verstappen ending up in the barriers and Vettel surviving a wild spin.
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle in Spielberg; editing by Christian Radnedge)