Hamilton back on top ahead of Bottas in Sochi practice

Sochi (Russia) (AFP) –

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Lewis Hamilton bounced back to top the times with a scorching lap ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas in Saturday's third and final free practice at the Russian Grand Prix.

The runaway series leader and six-time champion had been outpaced by the Finn in both sessions on Friday, but he responded with a convincing show of speed.

Hamilton is bidding to equal seven-time champion Michael Schumacher's record of 91 career Grand Prix wins in Sunday’s race, the first major sports event of the Covid-19 era to take place in front of a significant crowd.

The Russian organisers claim to have sold 30,000 tickets for spectators at the Olympic Park circuit, created around the facilities built for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Hamilton clocked a best lap of 1min 33.279sec to beat Bottas by seven-tenths with Carlos Sainz third for McLaren, eight-tenths off the pace.

Esteban Ocon was fourth for Renault ahead of Sergio Perez of Racing Point and Max Verstappen in the leading Red Bull.

Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, in his final year with Ferrari, was seventh ahead of Lance stroll in the second Racing Point, local hero Daniil Kvyat of Alpha Tauri and Daniel Ricciardo in the second Renault.

The session was run in warm and dry conditions at the Black Sea resort with an air temperature of 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit) and the track at 39 degrees Celsius.

After a slow start, Norris was quickest before the usual suspects joined the fray and Ricciardo, the Briton’s future team-mate at McLaren, trimmed the best time followed by Bottas, who had been quickest in both sessions on Friday, in 1:35.183.

Hamilton’s first effort lifted him to third, but seven-tenths off the Finn’s pace. Both drivers ran wide on their soft tyres, proving that the track remained slippery and challenging.

Both improved, but Hamilton remained two-tenths adrift of his ‘black arrows’ team-mate as Romain Grosjean complained bitterly on Haas team radio that “there’s nothing I can do with that car, boys – nothing I can do!”

Midway through the session, Pierre Gasly spun at Turn 15 in his Alpha Tauri. He avoided damaging his car, just stopping before the barriers as Max Verstappen, on his first run after half an hour, split the Mercedes by going second.

Bottas was clearly in the mood and he improved again by two-tenths with 16 minutes remaining. This gave him a two-tenths gap to Verstappen and four-tenths to Hamilton with Monza victor Gasly in fourth.

But Hamilton responded with the first lap of the weekend inside 1:34 as he clocked his rapid 1:33.279 to usurp Bottas at the top.