Sebastian Vettel claimed the top time at the end of a routine FP3 at the Marina Bay
Circuit in Singapore on Saturday, but he was less than two tenths faster than a confident Romain Grosjean
in the Lotus.
With Nico Rosberg
third for Mercedes ahed of Vettel's team mate Mark Webber, and Lewis Hamilton
less than two hundredths off the back of the Australian, it all points to a close qualifying to come in a couple of hours with several drivers in contention for pole position and the front row for Sunday's night time race.
Esteban Gutierrez had been first to hit the track for Sauber, as the F1 drivers had the unusual prospect of needing to avoid the marbles thrown off by the tyres of the GP2 drivers in their feature race, which had been held prior to F1 action in Singapore to allow the Grand Prix drivers to get the dusk and night time conditions later in the day.
Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo reported issues with his brakes lacking 'bite' during his installation lap which gave his pit crew a work out in the 34 degree conditions upon his return to pit lane. They determined that it was temperature-related and Ricciardo was soon back out on track and topping the times with a lap of 1:48.001s 20 minutes into the session, although a run-off at turn 2 suggested that more fine-tuning on the #19 might be in order especially after later complaints that the car was pulling to the right under braking.
Nico Rosberg's early complaints that the steering wheel on his Mercedes was still offset and heading down to the right, but he also soon rebounded and briefly topped the timed with a lap of 1:47.516s, after which his team mate Lewis Hamilton
engaged in a tit-for-tat battle for the top spot with Lotus F1's Romain Grosjean
which lasted until the midpoint of the session and the arrival of Red Bull's Mark Webber
with a new benchmark time of 1:46.220s ahead of his team mate Sebastian Vettel, the pair more than two tenths ahead of Hamilton, Grosjean and Rosberg.
The drivers were still struggling to get their balance set-up right with several minor incidents of locking-up and understeer that included minor off-track incidents for Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg
at turn 9 and Force India's Paul di Resta at turn 7, while a small error for Williams' Pastor Maldonado
saw the Venezuelan overrun turn 2 and Caterham's Giedo van der Garde survived a late brush with the wall exiting turn 21 without too much harm. Almost alone among the drivers happier on Saturday than they had been on Friday were Ferrari's Fernando Alonso
and Felipe Massa, both of whom were concentrating on improving their mechanical grip.
A brief lull preceded the final quarter of an hour of the session as the cars returned to pit road to break out the super-soft tyres and for final set-up tweaks, and when they returned to the track the floodlights were noticeably in the process of taking over from the setting sun ahead of the night time conditions for qualifying.
The gain from the option tyres was clear when Grosjean shot to the top with a lap of 1:44.364s with six minutes to go, and Vettel responded by cutting off another two tenths from the time to go in front seconds later, with Rosberg, Webber, Hamilton and Alonso also all showing similar improvements in their pace.
The boost from the super-softs proved short-lived, however, and after that initial flurry there were few improvements among the leaders as the chequered flag came out to bring the proceedings to the end. Sergio Perez claimed a strong seventh for McLaren
ahead of Hulkenberg who looked as impressive here as he did two weeks ago at Monza, edging Jenson Button
for ninth while Felipe Massa
was pushed down to tenth ahead of Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne.
Kimi Raikkonen had a scrappy final run to leave his Lotus outside the top ten and the better part of two seconds off his junior team mate. He was ahead of Maldonado and Ricciardo as the session came to a close, with Valtteri Bottas in 15th seeing off di Resta, Gutierrez and Sutil followed by the Caterhams of van der garde and Cgarles Pic which held off the back row challenge from the Marussias of Jules Bianchi
and Max Chilton.
After that the drivers headed back to the pit lane and the two-hour break before the start of Q1 at 9pm local time (2pm BST).Full Free Practice 3 times available