Valencia FP3 Recap: Button back on top, Webber with brake issues

Jenson Button (1:38.562) led at the end of the final practice session of the 2012 European Grand Prix weekend, posting his time in the final minutes of the session as the entire field ran around on soft tyres to simulate qualifying. Romain Grosjean, Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg, and Paul Di Resta completed the fastest five behind him, in a session that saw more sunshine and hotter temperatures than Friday, but considerably less wind. Mark Webber managed only nineteenth, after a brake issue lost him the final quarter of the hour long session. Michael Schumacher sat seventh, Lewis Hamilton eighth, Felipe Massa ninth, Fernando Alonso twelfth, and Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull mis-timed a final run through traffic, and the German managed only thirteenth.

Despite Friday’s cool temperatures (for Valencia), dusty conditions, and overcast skies, only Pedro de la Rosa put his car in a barrier. Plenty of drivers locked up and made good use of the escape roads on the street circuit, but Maldonado and Vettel put their cars on top of the timesheets in each session, respectively. Joined by Vettel, Webber, Button, and Alonso, Maldonado (1:40.890) topped a morning practice mostly interesting in the lack of soft tyre usage. Button spent the first half of that session complaining of a lack of feel and poor handling but managed to turn around his disappointing season to go fourth fastest in a close session where the top nine times were covered by less than two tenths of a second.

The afternoon practice brought forth de la Rosa’s incident at almost exactly halfway, scuppering some fast times as drivers switched to the soft tyre compound, one that gained about a half second for teams over the medium tyre. Still, Vettel (1:39.334) took the lead in the final third of the afternoon session and kept it as teams worked on tyre degradation in conditions that would almost certainly not be found during qualifying or the race. Hulkenberg, Kobayashi, Schumacher, and Senna completed the fastest five in yet another close session. The top fifteen fastest times were covered by less than a second. Still, Button and Hamilton did not fare well in the order, sat in twelfth and fourteenth fastest, respectively.

Session Start:
The final, hour long, practice got underway in a warmer and sunnier Valencia than Friday, as Di Resta led a train of cars out to begin the session. Hamilton was the last driver to post an installation lap, four minutes into the session. Kobayashi stayed out for a second lap but did not complete a timed one. The track was once again free of cars five minutes into the session and remained that way until Lotus teammates Grosjean and Raikkonen broke the quiet nearly ten minutes later. Hamilton joined soon thereafter.

15 Minutes Elapsed:
Hulkenberg and Ricciardo made five drivers circulating, a quarter of the way through the session, as Grosjean (1:40.136) posted the first time. Raikkonen’s first time was a half second slower than his teammate, but Hamilton soon split them his first time around as the rest of the field rejoined the circuit. Early times continued to improve and the order changed about a bit as the track continued to heat up and rubber in. Grosjean led Raikkonen, Maldonado, Hamilton, and Button twenty minutes in, as Hamilton made good use of the runoff area. Moments later, Raikkonen went fastest over the two thirds of the field who had set times. Only the Red Bulls and Ferraris remained in the garage with thirty-eight minutes remaining, though they soon joined the fray.

Soon the McLarens moved a bit further up the order, with Hamilton going fastest and Button third to split the Lotus drivers. As the session progressed, more drivers seemed to have somewhat more smooth laps than the day before. Webber’s first time put him thirteenth, but teammate Vettel went straight to third. Seconds later, Maldonado shot up to fastest of all with a slightly compromised lap. Meanwhile, Alonso and Massa were out, but held up in the middle sector. The former pitted again but the latter stayed out and went eighth fastest on his first timed lap.

Halfway:
Maldonado (1:39.762) led Hamilton, Raikkonen, Vettel, Rosberg, Button, Grosjean, Massa, Hulkenberg, Di Resta, and Schumacher. The lap times of that top eleven was covered by just a half second. However, Vettel soon went fastest, gaining more than three tenths over Maldonado’s time, and Alonso rejoined again. His teammate continued to move up the timesheets, going third fastest despite a lockup into Turn 12. Alonso was seventh fastest on his first timed lap, but earlier Rob Smedley, Massa’s race engineer, informed the Brazilian that the fastest laps were coming on the third of fourth lap of a run. Grosjean, meanwhile, flew to the top, posting the first 1:38 of the weekend on the soft tyres, nearly eight tenths faster than Vettel.

Other than Grosjean’s soft tyre run, times had settled in for a few minutes with twenty to go. Some teams had begun calling the drivers back in at that point, preparing for the switch to soft tyres. Webber remained down in seventeenth and in the garage for a front suspension change. However, his session soon ended with a possible brake issue. Meanwhile, de la Rosa caused a local yellow near the end of the lap, spinning dramatically but continuing on around the track. Kobayashi had been last, but moved up to fourth.

15 Minutes Remaining:
Most drivers were in the garage, waiting for the opportune moment to try out a bit of qualifying simulation with fifteen minutes to go. Grosjean (1:38.655) still led Vettel, with Senna, Kobayashi, Perez, Maldonado, Massa, Hamilton, Raikkonen, and Button the top ten. Alonso sat twelfth, Schumacher thirteenth, and Webber eighteenth. Only Raikkonen ran on track with ten minutes to go, but Perez quickly joined him, as did Alonso and many others for a dash of soft tyre laps. Raikkonen set a lap just a tenth off his teammate, fast a lap ahead of the rest of the drivers. Only the Red Bull drivers remained in the garage with six minutes remaining, as soft tyre times finally began to come across the screen.

5 Minutes Remaining:
Kobayashi moved up to third, only to be displaced by Di Resta seconds later. Next, Button went fastest of all just almost a tenth. Alonso moved back up, but only to eighth. Soon Hulkenberg moved his lap time to fourth as Hamilton managed only sixth, and Schumacher slotted into seventh. Vettel remained in the garage as well, with the team keeping the photographers away. The German got back onto the track with a bit over two minutes remaining, with time only for a single lap. To manage traffic, he nearly had to stop to start the timed lap but managed only to require the use of an escape road in the first sector. At the end, Button remained on top, with Lotus not at all far behind.

Final Times for FP3, 2012 European Grand Prix:

 DriverTeamTimeGapLaps
1. Jenson ButtonMcLaren1:38.562 17
2. Romain GrosjeanLotus1:38.6550.09318
3. Kimi RaikkonenLotus1:38.7590.19718
4. Nico HulkenbergForce India1:38.8190.25717
5. Paul Di RestaForce India1:38.8920.33017
6. Sergio PerezSauber1:39.0840.52220
7. Michael SchumacherMercedes1:39.1410.57915
8. Lewis HamiltonMcLaren1:39.1780.61617
9. Felipe MassaFerrari1:39.3180.75615
10. Pastor MaldonadoWilliams1:39.3570.79518
11. Kamui KobayashiSauber1:39.3580.79619
12. Fernando AlonsoFerrari1:39.3950.83315
13. Sebastian VettelRed Bull1:39.4340.87213
14. Bruno SennaWilliams1:39.5430.98113
15. Nico RosbergMercedes1:39.9461.38420
16. Jean-Eric VergneToro Rosso1:40.0371.47517
17. Daniel RicciardoToro Rosso1:40.1341.57220
18. Heikki KovalainenCaterham1:40.6812.11915
19. Mark WebberRed Bull1:41.2822.7204
20. Vitaly PetrovCaterham1:41.9313.36915
21. Pedro de la RosaHRT1:42.7584.19614
22. Charles PicMarussia1:42.8154.25316
23. Narain KarthikeyanHRT1:42.9434.38114
24. Timo GlockMarussia1:43.1244.56216
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