Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco waits in the pit during the third practice session at the Barcelona Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, Spain, Saturday, May 21, 2022. The Formula One race will be held on Sunday. (AP)
The Ferrari driver was just 0.072 seconds faster than Verstappen of Red Bull. The Mercedes pair of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were third and fourth fastest in the Saturday morning session.
Qualifying for Sunday's race was scheduled to follow the final practice session, held on a warm, sunny day at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Although large parts of Spain are under a heatwave alert with May temperatures that rank among the hottest in two decades, it was a manageable 32 C (89 F) during the morning practice.
The most heat came from the Haas of Mick Schumacher when his brakes failed and appeared to catch fire barely 15 minutes into the hourlong session.
Schumacher told his team by radio that “my brakes are burning, my rear brakes are burning” as he overshot his stop. Crew members quickly doused the flames spouting from the back right wheel with fire extinguishers.
The team said it was changing a gearbox and was "confident that Mick’s car will be in shape to take part in qualifying.”
Over 100,000 fans are expected at the first Spanish GP with full spectators since 2019; the public was not permitted to attend in 2020 and only 1,000 fans were allowed inside in 2021 because of pandemic restrictions.
Spanish driver Carlos Sainz, the best shot to win on home soil, was fifth-fastest Saturday morning in his Ferrari. A fuel system issue forced Ferrari to change Sainz's chassis overnight.
Fellow countryman Fernando Alonso has not had a joyous homecoming so far. He was 12th in Saturday morning practice for Alpine, accused the FIA of incompetence in race control, and was penalized during one of Friday's practices.
Spain's greatest driver has struggled this season and the two-time F1 champion has scored only two points, while Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon has scored 24.
Leclerc holds a 19-point lead over Verstappen after five races, but Verstappen has the momentum and is coming off consecutive victories at Imola and Miami. The Dutchman has three wins to Leclerc's two victories this season.
But Ferrari is one of several teams that arrived in Spain with upgrades to their 2022 cars and was hopeful the team can stop Verstappen on the 4.6-kilometer (2.8-mile) circuit.
Qualifying will be important as the pole sitter for this race has won 23 out of 31 times because the track has few passing zones.
Hot temperatures should make tire management key over the 66-lap race on a track notorious for being tough on tires. Leclerc complained about it during Friday’s practice.
Ferrari racing director Laurent Mekies acknowledged before qualifying that the Italian outfit “was not pleased with our long runs” due to the wear and tear on the tires.
“We are hoping to help with the upgrades (we brought to Spain) and give the tires an easier time,” Mekies said.
Hamilton has won the Spanish GP six times, and for each of the past five years. But the seven-time world champion entered the weekend as an outside challenger to what so far has been a two-man title fight between Verstappen and Leclerc.
Hamilton has been beaten by new teammate Russell in four of five races this year as Mercedes has been slow out of the gate with its new car.
Echoing the positive impressions that Hamilton had from Friday's practice, Mercedes technical director Mike Elliot said that his team had done a lot to eliminate the bouncing effect — referred to as “porpoising" — that has plagued the team with the new car.
“We have definitely settled the car down,” Elliot said. He didn’t rule out a rebound that could return Mercedes to title contention.
“We were lucky enough to be at the front for a big period of time, and to now find ourselves as the challengers is lifting," he said. "We are not a huge distance behind, if we can get our car into position we have a chance.”
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