Sebastian Vettel set an impressive pace on the opening day of pre-season testing for the 2019 Formula 1 season as McLaren enjoyed its best start in five years.
Ferrari was quickly out of the blocks on Monday at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, with Vettel quickly accumulating serious mileage — reaching 169 laps in total — and setting quick lap times in the process. Despite a spin early on, the four-time world champion posted a 1m18.161s — two seconds faster than Daniel Ricciardo’s pace-setting time from the opening day last season — before the lunch break using the C3 tire compound, which is in the middle of the five-strong Pirelli range.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was suitably impressed by Vettel’s time, saying: “What’s really encouraging to see and surprising, I think the time Sebastian has done is already quicker than last year already. The cars will only get quicker from where they are today.
“It is a fantastic time today. Sebastian obviously wintered very well.”
While Ferrari entered testing as one of the teams expecting to fight at the front, McLaren has had a torrid time in pre-season since the start of 2015 and enters this season with an air of caution. The team could be rightly encouraged by its opening day, however, with Carlos Sainz completing 119 laps.
The mileage is of significance given the team’s recent struggles, but Sainz also posted the second-fastest time, 0.397s slower than Vettel albeit on the C4 compound that is one step softer. Sainz did cause one red flag during the afternoon session when he stopped at the pit exit after losing drive, but the team was able to quickly rectify the issue and return to the track.
Another driver to bring out the red flag was Romain Grosjean, who pulled to the inside of the track on the approach to the chicane in the morning session with what his Haas team explained was a loss of fuel pressure. Work over the lunch period meant the Frenchman was able to rejoin to complete 65 laps and was classified third at the end of the day, with a best lap just under a second slower than Vettel coming on the same C3 compound as the Ferrari.
While McLaren started strongly, its former power unit supplier Honda was also enjoying a good opening day in partnership with Red Bull. Max Verstappen was fourth fastest in the RB15 on the same compound as Vettel and Grosjean, and while the lap time of 1m19.426s was strong, Horner says the 128 laps were of more importance.
“The main focus is mainly getting miles on the board and understanding that complex marriage between engine and chassis to make sure both our working in harmony, which seems to be working well so far,” Horner said. “This week is all about getting miles on the board.”
The day’s running was bookended by two red flags caused by Kimi Raikkonen, one of which was planned. The Finn was behind the wheel of the Alfa Romeo following his switch from Ferrari and was only 0.036s slower than Verstappen on the same tire — the C3 — while he also exceeded 100 laps, racking up 114 in all.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Raikkonen, though, as he spun off just five minutes into the day. Swapping ends on the entry to Turn 5, Raikkonen started to try and drive out of the gravel but soon became stuck and needed recovering. The stoppage at the end of the day was more controlled, with a fuel run-out test saw him slow with just one minute of track time remaining.
Daniil Kvyat was the only other driver to set his best time on the softer C4 tire — the same as Sainz — as he ended up sixth, 0.002s slower than Raikkonen. 77 laps was the third lowest of any team in the day, ahead of only Haas and Racing Point.
Sergio Perez gave the RP19 its first track action of the year and duly struggled for mileage, completing just 30 laps due to what the team described as teething problems, having not carried out a shakedown.
Mercedes and Renault both split running between their two drivers and set best laps on the harder C2 tire, with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton completing 150 laps between them and being separated by just 0.008s just outside the 1m20s bracket.
The gap between Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo was even smaller, with only 0.003s between the new Renault teammates and 109 laps amassed for the team.
While there were no major alarm bells for the nine teams running at this stage, Williams failed to take part in the opening day and its FW42 is not likely to be seen until Wednesday afternoon at the earliest.