|© AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
Felipe Massa went quickest in the third and final practice session for the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday giving Ferrari a boost for qualifying later in the day and something to cheer for the Italian team’s chairman Luca di Montezemolo, who made an appearance at the track.
Times started to drop after the medium tyres came out late in the session, and the Brazilian took advantage to clock a fastest lap of 1 minute 21.901 seconds, but was just 0.006 seconds quicker than Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen, who showed he might threaten in Sunday's race.
Massa has started every race in the top five this season, but Ferrari is looking for its drivers to find extra speed in qualifying following three frustrating seasons to increase the pressure on Red Bull.
The closest Ferrari has been to pole position this season was when Massa qualified second at the Malaysian GP in March.
Qualifying is a very crucial session at Catalunya, where 18 of the last 22 races held have been won from pole position.
Mark Webber, who has been on pole in two of the last three races in Spain, was third ahead of Romain Grosjean with the top four separated by less than two-tenths in a session held in dry and sunny conditions.
Grosjean has had a frustrating start to the campaign, although his form picked up with a third-place in Bahrain.
Sebastian Vettel’s car ran with flow-viz paint in the initial laps as Red Bull continued to assess its new parts, plenty of which arrived in boxes overnight from its base in Milton Keynes in England.
“Well, we’ve got to keep the boys in sandwiches,” quipped Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey about the boxes.
“I think I will be a spoilsport and won’t specify. You can look at the photos,” Newey said in a press conference on Friday when asked what specific parts the defending champions had introduced in Spain.
Having set the early pace on hard tyres, Vettel will need to pick up the pace in the afternoon to earn a third pole of the season after starting top of the grid in the first two races.
Vettel was fifth ahead of Fernando Alonso, who waved to his home fans from his car on his installation lap, three-tenths off Massa’s pace. In his 11 outings in Barcelona, though, the Spaniard has been out-qualified just once.
Alonso has started the last three races from third spot on the grid, and he will hoping for a higher position in front of his home fans.
Force India’s strong run this season continued with Paul di Resta in seventh followed by teammate Adrian Sutil.
Lewis Hamilton was ninth but Mercedes concentrated mostly on long runs to better its race pace, which has been the car’s Achilles Heel so far.
Mercedes has claimed pole in the last two last Grands Prix and could achieve a hat-trick of top spots for the first time since 1955 although Renault-powered cars have claimed pole position in the last three Spanish GPs.
Toro Rosso has been the surprise of the weekend so far as Jean-Eric Vergne rounded up the top ten ahead of Nico Rosberg.
Following on from Friday's two underwhelming practice sessions, McLaren's prospects still look gloomy.
The British team, which had introduced a raft of upgrades this weekend, reverted to its old front wing as the new one wasn’t flex-tested by governing body FIA.
Both the drivers were outside the top ten for the second straight day as the team’s struggles show no signs of ending
Jenson Button had said after Friday practice that the car was a “still a hell of a long way off the pace” despite the new package suggesting that the parts didn’t work as expected while team principal Martin Whitmarsh admitted that getting into Q3 would be difficult.
Button was 1.2 seconds slower than Massa in 11th while teammate Sergio Perez, who knocked off a part of his front wing halfway into the session and later had issues with the power steering, was 14th.
McLaren had already broken one of its four allocated curfews on Thursday as the crew worked late into the night to prepare the car for the weekend.
Last year’s pole-sitter and race winner Pastor Maldonado could do no better than 15th.
The top six drivers were separated by only 0.353 seconds, suggesting qualifying later Saturday will be close.
With inputs from the AP report by Jerome Pugmire