SEBASTIAN Vettel ensured Ferrari outpaced Mercedes and Red Bull as F1’s second winter test got off to a competitive start at Barcelona.
Vettel topped the timesheet for the second time this winter with a 1:20.396 on the medium tyres to be two tenths of a second clear of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas — whose best lap came on softs — and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, also on the mediums.
“It was a good day’s work,” said Vettel. “We managed to get through our program, even if the conditions weren’t always ideal.”
Lewis Hamilton drove in the afternoon and was fourth, 0.412s off Vettel’s morning pace, on the soft tyres as F1’s “Big Three” snared the leading places on the timesheet.
“I think it will be all three of us against each other,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told Sky Sports News in a mouth-watering prediction for 2018.
“We have a worst case and a best case. What we have seen is that even if it is best case we are not in front by a lot, and if it is a worst case we are not far behind.”
FRESH BLOWS FOR MCLAREN
McLaren are hoping to push that trio this year but their winter lurched to a new low as their car broke down on three separate occasions.
Electrical problems twice stopped Stoffel Vandoorne early in the morning, once in the pits and once on track, before a hydraulics fault then ended McLaren’s day early.
The team completed only 38 laps, the fewest in the field, on a day the leading teams they are hoping to challenge this year all notched up centuries.
But McLaren racing director Eric Boullier told Sky Sports: “There is absolutely no drama.
“This is just testing. We push the car to the limits and we try some various conditions and set-ups and things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
McLaren’s first five days of running with their new Renault-powered car have been compromised by unreliability.
On the opening day of Test One, Fernando Alonso was pitched into the gravel at the final corner after a loose wheelnut worked its way loose. Vandoorne then lost hours of track time on Day Two due to a broken exhaust clip.
McLaren’s management had hoped for sustained trouble-free running this winter after ending their lucrative but failed Honda partnership in a bid to revive their fortunes.
But while Renault have been pleased with their engine’s reliability so far in testing, McLaren shouldered responsibility for the problems at the first test.
Despite Boullier’s calmness, they’re ominous signs for McLaren after the team endured a catastrophic 2017 campaign full of car problems that prompted its ugly split with Honda. Alonso — still one of the most talented drivers on the grid — was routinely robbed in a season where technical failure after technical failure crippled his push for podium finishes.
TORO ROSSO CONFIDENCE IS SKY HIGH
Red Bull also stopped on track in the afternoon session due to a battery failure but Verstappen was able to return to the track and topped 120 laps.
“The most important thing was to get a lot of laps and see how the car was behaving,” said Verstappen. “We managed to do that.”
To increase the pain for McLaren, Toro Rosso again caught the eye with their new Honda engines during the morning session and Pierre Gasly posted the fifth-quickest time.
The Frenchman’s 1:20.973 was Toro Rosso’s best of pre-season testing so far, while his 54 laps took the team past 375 laps for the winter.
However, only two of those laps came in the afternoon as the screens went across the team’s garage as they worked to resolve a brake system problem.
“We are happy with the Honda engine which is doing a fantastic job,” Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost told Sky Sports.
“I am convinced they will supply us with a very competitive package. I am sure that during the season we will catch up and by the end of the season we will have a very competitive car. Our target is to be in the front part of the midfield.
“I don’t care about McLaren. I am convinced that by the end we will have a more competitive package than them.”
Kevin Magnussen also offered more encouragement to Haas by posting the sixth-fastest time of the day and running within a second of Vettel’s benchmark.
The Dane was narrowly ahead of Renault pair Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz, who again shared the RS18, plus Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams, with just two tenths splitting the quartet.
Marcus Ericsson completed 118 laps in his Sauber and was 11th-fastest, but Force India had another low-key outing, although Sergio Perez completed lots of afternoon laps to end the day with 92 on the board. However, the Mexican was only 10th and had a morning trip through the gravel.
— Jonathan Green, James Galloway and Pete Gill