Nico Hulkenberg ensured Renault set the fastest time of the first pre-season test despite stopping late on day four with a technical issue.
On a day when the top four drivers all opted to use the softest compound available, Hulkenberg lowered the best time seen this pre-season to a 1m17.393s on Thursday afternoon. The German had only taken over from Daniel Ricciardo — who was third quickest on a 1m17.785s — at lunchtime and had 24 laps to his name when he came to a halt at Turn 14.
The positioning of the Renault so close to the pit entry — with a downhill run into it — suggested a problem that was serious enough to force an immediate stoppage, and Hulkenberg did not return to the track as the team investigated the issue for the rest of the day.
That incident meant Renault only completed a total of 58 laps on the final day despite setting the pace, which was the lowest of any team.
Alexander Albon’s second full day driving a Formula 1 car was a strong one, as the Thai rookie was second quickest — 0.244s off Hulkenberg — and managed 136 laps. The mileage continues some strong running for Honda, with Pierre Gasly in the Red Bull also adding 146 to the total.
Mercedes finally showed signs of raw pace having focused on longer running on hard compounds earlier in the week, with Valtteri Bottas going fourth quickest. The Finn was also on the softest compound known as the C5, and his afternoon running total 57 laps with a best time of 1m17.857s. That was the quickest time Mercedes has set all week, but still nearly half a second off Hulkenberg.
Lewis Hamilton had a similar schedule in the morning but only used the C4 tire — one step harder than those ahead of him — and ended up fifth quickest. Hamilton posted a 1m17.977s that put both Mercedes drivers finish ahead of Ferrari, although Bottas said that it looks like the Scuderia is ahead at this stage.
It’s fair to say Ferrari will be happier than Mercedes at the halfway point of pre-season, with Charles Leclerc adding another 138 laps to the team’s total on Thursday. That’s despite finishing 12 shy of Mercedes’ overall total of 610 laps, and without dropping under the 1m18s mark.
The reason for that optimism is the best Ferrari times coming on the C3 tire compound — the middle of Pirelli’s range — while the team was instantly quick from day one.
Lando Norris was seventh, 0.4s slower than Leclerc on the C4 compound. McLaren has enjoyed its most productive first test in years as Norris completed 132 laps to bring the total for the week up to 445 — although he was the cause of the first red flag on Thursday when he slid into the gravel at Turn 5 on cold tires early on.
The only other driver to cause red flags was Antonio Giovinazzi, who stopped twice right at the end of the session. The first was a precautionary one at the end of the pit lane, and the team wheeled the Alfa Romeo back to the garage, drained it of fuel and sent it out again, which resulted in an immediate second stoppage.
Even with those incidents, Giovinazzi amassed 154 laps to complete the highest mileage of the day, and his 1m18.511s came on the C3 as Alfa Romeo enjoyed a strong opening week.
Plenty of teams will be pleased with their work, with Haas recovering from three stoppages on day three to finish with 64 laps for Romain Grosjean and 66 for Kevin Magnussen in ninth and 10th respectively.
Red Bull didn’t join the party in terms of running soft compounds, resulting in Gasly ending up 11th, but the top 11 cars were still within 1.4s of each other as the field appears close at the end of the opening week. With strong mileage, Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko described the first test as the best start to pre-season his team has ever had.
The same can’t be said for Williams, with George Russell and Robert Kubica propping up the times on their first real day of running. Russell only managed 23 laps on Wednesday and a delay early in the afternoon limited him to 17 on Thursday, while Kubica completed 48 in the morning.
Both drivers say they have had little opportunity to push the car and get a feeling for its strengths and weaknesses, as Williams has been carrying out a lot of aero running and data gathering, having missed the first two and a half days. The team will likely take some encouragement from being close to Racing Point on the final day, however, with Lance Stroll 1.3s quicker than Russell despite the different points in the two teams’ pre-season schedules.