Lando Norris raised hopes that he could challenge Max Verstappen for pole at the Japanese Grand Prix by finishing final practice within three tenths of the Red Bull driver.
Verstappen’s record 10-race winning run and Red Bull’s unbeaten season came to an end in Singapore last weekend.
He had set a blistering pace on Friday to suggest the team have put their struggles in the city-state behind them.
The Dutchman’s margin in opening practice was a huge 0.626 seconds over Ferrari’s Singapore-winner Carlos Sainz before beating Charles Leclerc by 0.320sec in P2.
FP1 ✅ FP2 ✅ FP3 ✅ Max tops all three practice sessions with Checo in P4 as we move to Quali 🏁 pic.twitter.com/DFFFr0W5Wp
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) September 23, 2023
That raised fears that Verstappen, who is closing in on a hat-trick of world titles, could dominate the weekend in a Red Bull car which Lewis Hamilton predicted would be “phenomenal” around the high-speed corner track at Suzuka.
But Norris finished just 0.240 seconds adrift of the 25-year-old and just 0.048 ahead of his McLaren team-mate Oscar Piastri as the British team continued to show strong pace.
Mercedes pair Hamilton and George Russell enjoyed a more promising session but remained off the pace of Red Bull and McLaren.
Hamilton in particular struggled badly in Friday’s two practice sessions, finishing 16th and 14th, with the seven-time world champion admitting Mercedes had work to do before qualifying.
The 38-year-old finished seventh in P3, albeit 0.892sec behind pace-setter Verstappen, with Russell eighth.
Mercedes are battling with Ferrari to finish second in the Constructors’ Championship.
Ferrari, who are running a new floor at Suzuka, claimed the edge by finishing fifth and sixth but were over half-a-second adrift of the two McLarens.
Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull claimed fourth, 0.737sec behind his team-mate.
A large number of the teams are struggling with tyre degradation due to the higher-than-usual heat at Suzuka, with a track temperature of over 48 degrees Celsius recorded during P3, raising the possibility of a three-stop race on Sunday.
Qualifying gets under way at 1500 local time (0700 BST).