Ferrari fights back with F1 fireworks
SEBASTIAN Vettel unleashed the fastest time of pre-season testing so far as Ferrari grabbed the headlines on the penultimate day of F1's winter action.
On a day all teams - including under-pressure McLaren - completed well over 100 laps, Vettel set by far the quickest as he became the first driver since the Circuit de Catalunya lap was lengthened in 2007 to clock a time below 78 seconds.
The German's 1:17.182 on hypersoft tyres meant the circuit's unofficial lap record was broken for the second time in as many days.
Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull had first managed it on Wednesday, but Vettel's Thursday time was nearly nine tenths of a second faster.
"We've made good progress in understanding the car," Vettel said.
"For now, the important thing is that we know our car is working in the way we want and the way we expect."
But the time sheet picture was clouded by neither world champions Mercedes, the pre-season favourites, nor Red Bull completing lower-fuel performance runs.
That left Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas back in eighth and ninth respectively, while Max Verstappen was 12th.
"But l am enjoying driving the car," Hamilton said.
"It is an improvement. Last year's car was great but this car feels better."
Hamilton welcomed Ferrari setting the fastest time so far amid rising expectation of a close fight between Mercedes and the Scuderia when the new season begins
"I hope it is a good time because it means they are strong and we have a race on our hands," Hamilton said.
"I can't wait for the first race to see where we all come out. We want people to be on the edge of their seats."
While Mercedes remain adamant Red Bull are contenders, it was Ferrari's form which stole the limelight on day three in Barcelona.
Hamilton completed the majority of his running on the slower medium tyres, but Vettel also produced a lap on ultrasofts that was four tenths ahead of the best Mercedes have so produced in winter testing on the ultras.
"We haven't been on low fuel yet so l have no idea where the car can go yet," Hamilton said
Hamilton has never made any secret of his general indifference towards testing.
The Mercedes driver claimed ignorance of Ferrari's benchmark time, while his preparations for his run on Thursday included a game of tennis against his father in the morning and Hamilton admitted he kept himself occupied in the car whenever it returned to Mercedes' garage in the afternoon by sending emails on his phone.
"Then they say 'go' and l give the phone back and l go and do my laps," Hamilton said.
"Then l come back in and do the same!"
Mercedes are still yet to fully show their hand with just one day of testing remaining but the world champions have run reliably throughout and Hamilton's lap of 1:18.945 on Wednesday on the medium compound may be, when tyre corrected, the fastest time of all so far.
For 2018, Mercedes have sought to tame the "diva" characteristics of last year's car while building on its strengths. And Hamilton has been happy with the first impressions of his new car.
"We are just getting to know each other so I can't really call her a diva," he joked. "But I am enjoying driving the car. It is an improvement. Last year's car was great but this car feels better."
"Where we are compared to the rest, I don't know. But I feel strong right now."