Button tops FP3, but qualifying formbook unwritten
23 June 2012
Jenson Button gave himself and the McLaren team a welcome boost by topping the third and final free practice session ahead of qualifying for the European Grand Prix but, with so many of the expected frontrunners out of position, the timesheet offers few clues to how the grid may form up on Sunday.
Having seen the two Lotus drivers settle in at the top of the order as they lived up to their claim of finding more pace in FP3, Button looked more comfortable than he had on day one as he eased ahead of both, posting the best lap of the weekend so far in 1min 38.562secs. The Briton was running on the softer of the two Pirelli tyre options as he ended the 60-minute session 0.093secs ahead of Grosjean, with Raikkonen a further tenth adrift as the E20 indeed showed better performance in fast lap trim and with temperatures more on its side than had been the case on day one.
However, whether the top three's positions are genuine remains to be seen for too many 'big names' were missing from the sharp end of the times. Force India twins Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta completed the top five, building on their Friday form and suggesting that they could indeed by contenders for the final phase of qualifying, but the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and, more pertinently, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were all down the order - in eighth, twelfth, 13th and 19th respectively - after a combination of traffic and technical problems.
Hamilton was just six-tenths off his team-mates ultimate pace, suggesting that he had simply not got a quick lap together, while Alonso simply looked more ragged than of late. Although both have the potential to improve and nail down top ten positions, the biggest threat will surely come from Vettel , who topped the order at the halfway point then returned to the Red Bull garage for tweaks to his RB8. Emerging with just a couple of minutes remaining, his last-ditch attempt to return to P1 would have looked good as he set two purple sector times, but doing so only after running wide at turn two on cold tyres meant that Button - and the top ten - remained out of reach.
If Vettel's form looked ominous, however, team-mate Webber's fortunes took a dive as he spent much of the session in the garage having his brakes attended to. As a result, the Australian found himself mixed in with the bottom six, splitting the Caterhams in P20 and with a best lap nearly three seconds off the pace. More importantly, he was unable to complete his qualifying preparation with just four completed laps to his name.
In their absence - and that of Mercedes' Nico Rosberg, who was only 15th fastest - the top ten took on an unfamiliar appearance, with the Force Indias being followed by Sergio Perez and Michael Schumacher, and Felipe Massa and Pastor Maldonado rounding out the order behind Hamilton. The list continued to revolve to the end of the session, however, with the likes of Bruno Senna and Kamui Kobayashi both popping up in the top four before being pushed back outside the top ten.
Toro Rosso also looked to have found something overnight as both Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo escaped the clutches of Caterham, although only half a second separated the pair from Heikki Kovalainen. Further back, Pedro de la Rosa showed no ill-effects of his turn 14 shunt on Friday afternoon, propelling his rebuilt HRT to 21st, ahead of both Marussias, who were also split by team-mate Narain Karthikeyan.