Sebastian Vettel wrapped up Formula 1’s pre-season testing with the fastest lap for Ferrari on Friday but five-times world champion Lewis Hamilton kept Mercedes on the pace despite suggesting his team lagged behind the Reds whose boss Mattia Binotto scoffed at the idea.
With teams packing up and heading home before the opening race in Australia on March 17, the evidence from eight days at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catulunya suggested there was very little in it between the two.
Vettel’s best effort of 1:16.221 seconds on Friday morning was faster than anyone else went in Spain but Hamilton ended the final day only 0.003 of a second slower on the same C5 tyres.
The Briton, who was actually faster than the German on the second-softest C4 tyres, earlier told reporters he felt the Italians were much further ahead, “I think the gap [to Ferrari] is potentially half a second, something like that.”
“Last year they arrived with a car working well but they have done even better this year. It’s OK. We don’t mind the challenge, it just means we have to work harder. I’m not worried or disappointed or anything,” added Hamilton, who has won four of the last five championships in a V6 turbo hybrid era that Mercedes have dominated.
But his words were taken with a pinch of salt further down the pitlane, by Ferrari’s new team boss Binotto who told reporters, “I believe that Mercedes will be very, very strong in Australia.”
“I think it would be completely wrong to think we are faster than them. I’m not expecting them to be behind us. I think they will be very, very close.”
“After a total of eight days, which were very intensive and interesting days, we are still focusing on ourselves, we are still learning our car to understand the limit of performance but as well the reliability.”
“This is very important preparation for the entire season so I’m happy to know Hamilton believes that we are faster, but we believe they are very strong. I believe that Mercedes will be very, very strong in Australia, and I think it would be completely wrong to think that today we are faster than them.”
“We know that here we may run different fuel levels, we’ve got different programs, so I’m not expecting them to be behind us, I think it’ll be very, very close.”
Binotto was speaking before Hamilton’s time was set, but also before Vettel stopped on track in the afternoon session with an electrical problem that ended Ferrari’s test prematurely. The Italian almost pre-empted such an issue when insisting he is not satisfied with the car as it currently is.
“I think that we did a lot of work, but I’m not pleased for where we are at the moment,” he said. “I think I would like to be faster, I would like to be more reliable. So I think there is still much to do, and the season still hasn’t started yet.
“The season is 21 races, so testing is only testing, only a few days. I’m pleased to say that the car is behaving as we’re expecting. That’s the starting point. There were many issues to be addressed, and performance to be push forward. Certainly, the fact that the car is running properly is a good starting point, but that’s it.”
On the final day of testing, Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas was third fastest on Friday in 1:16.561 — also on C5 rubber — as Mercedes turned their focus to single lap pace after concentrating on longer runs.
Vettel’s day ended two hours early when he reported an electrical issue – their third glitch in as many days – after he had done 110 laps.
Binotto said the car needed to be faster and more reliable, with many issues still to be addressed and work to be done before Melbourne.
If anything can be deducted from the eight days of testing in Spain, it is that the stage is set for another chapter in the Mercedes vs Ferrari battle for supremacy at the pinnacle of the sport.