Nico Rosberg topped all three free practices heading into the Japanese Grand Prix Qualifying session, with the German driver finishing three-tenths faster than Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo in the final Free Practice session on Saturday morning, continuing his imperious form.
Mercedes AMG PETRONAS looked less dominant than in the previous two sessions however, as Rosberg’s team-mate Lewis Hamilton could only manage seventh fastest after making a mistake on a flying lap.
Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was third fastest showing some solid pace but the four-time World Champion will have to take three-place penalty in qualifying following his collision with Rosberg in the Malaysian Grand Prix last weekend.
Max Verstappen was mere thousandths of a second behind Vettel in fourth while Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the top five, albeit nine-tenths off the ultimate pace.
Felipe Massa showed some strong one lap pace in his Williams Martini Racing machine to finish sixth ahead of the Mercedes of Hamilton but the British driver still has inherent pace to find.
The Renault Sport F1 machines of Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen made a rare appearance in the top ten finishing eighth and ninth respectively, while Nico Hulkenberg completed the top ten for Sahara Force India, but with the midfield so tightly bunched positions, qualifying could see a lot of changes in the order.
McLaren Honda had a mixed session with Fernando Alonso setting the eleventh fastest time while Jenson Button struggled down in 19th, while Williams’ Valtteri Bottas will be scratching his head after being over six tenths behind his more experience team-mate Massa in thirteenth place, behind the Haas F1 machine of Esteban Gutierrez.
Mexican Sergio Perez could only manage fourteenth in the Force India while under pressure Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat set the fifteenth fastest time on a tricky day for the Red Bull junior team, with Carlos Sainz Jr suffered a mechanical problem midway through the session meaning he missed out on valuable track time.
Haas driver Romain Grosjean set the sixteenth fastest time, half a second down on team-mate Gutierrez, while the two Saubers of Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson were seventeenth and eighteenth respectively.
Manor Racing completed the field, Esteban Ocon ahead of Pascal Wehrlein, while the struggling Sainz completed the order after failing to get a competitive lap time in.
FP3 proved to be a tricky session for the teams after the track began damp limiting running in the earlier periods of the session. Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari looked very close throughout the session but with changeable conditions and a track evolution, FP3 may not show completely representative lap times.
Qualifying will be very exciting in the midfield with it being so close behind the top three teams, tyre allocation and track temperature could play a huge part in the outcome of Qualifying.