Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton ended pre-season testing in Barcelona just 0.003s apart after Mercedes finally showed some of its pace on the final day.
Hamilton had been talking up Ferrari’s pace earlier on Friday after Vettel posted a 1m16.221s – the fastest time of testing – on the C5 compound tire in the morning session, edging ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc’s previous leading time by 0.01s.
However, once the defending champion got in the car for the afternoon, Hamilton showed why Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto dismissed the earlier claims. Hamilton carried out some low fuel running late in the day with a best lap of 1m16.224s, leaving the two title rivals from the past two seasons separated by just 0.003s on the same tire compound.
While Hamilton was setting that time Vettel was back in the garage; his test having been ended prematurely by an electrical issue that caused the Ferrari to stop at Turn 2. The team was unable to fix it before the end of the day, costing Vettel around two hours of track time and curtailing a race simulation that had carried him to 110 laps in total.
Although the headline times were so close, there was also a 1m16.7s lap that Vettel set on C3 tires – the middle of the Pirelli compound – that hints at further performance to come from the Ferrari.
If the timing of Hamilton’s best lap made for an unfair comparison, then Valtteri Bottas was a more representative option with a 1m16.561s coming in the morning session on C5 tires.
In fact, all but one of the fastest times on Friday came on the softest compound, with the anomaly highlighting a frustrating day for Red Bull.
After Pierre Gasly’s heavy crash on Thursday, Red Bull rebuilt the RB15 overnight and had missed just 40 minutes of track time when Verstappen first headed out. However, he only completed 29 laps before a gearbox issue sent the car back to the garage, not to be seen again for the rest of the day.
That issue means Red Bull has carried out little in the way of race simulations – Verstappen completing one on Wednesday – and also did not show representative low fuel pace, as the Dutch driver’s 1m17.709s came on the C3 compound and left him 11th of 13 registered times.
Five different teams dipped under the 1m17s barrier on the final day, suggesting a potential closing of the gap between the top three and the midfield compared to last season. Nico Hulkenberg set the best of the rest time with a 1m16.843s in fourth place, a lap he posted shortly before Hamilton’s best.
Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz were both within 0.1s of Hulkenberg’s time for Toro Rosso and McLaren respectively, and both exceeded 130 laps to end pre-season strongly, while Romain Grosjean, Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen all ensured a second covered the top eight teams.
Raikkonen caused the first red flag of the day, stopping at Turn 2 – the same spot as Vettel – but returning soon after to completed 132 laps. The Alfa Romeo ended up 0.3s ahead of Kevin Magnussen, with the Dane taking over for the afternoon and carrying out an impressive long run.
As it stands, the midfield pecking order looks extremely tough to call, but the bottom two positions appear to be clearly filled by Racing Point and Williams. The latter had made encouraging progress throughout each day of running following its delayed start to testing, but Robert Kubica’s 1m18.993s was 0.8s off what George Russell registered on Thursday, and left the team 1.2s adrift of the rest of the field.
Sergio Perez was the next driver ahead of Kubica, and although he was 1.5s off the overall pace, his 104 laps represented a busy day for the team. Racing Point has limited its mileage throughout pre-season due to a lack of spare parts, with what Perez has described as a “massive” upgrade set to be introduced in Melbourne that should push the team closer to the midfield mix.