By Adam Tate, Associate Editor
It was all thumbs up for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari today. The four time champ looked absolutely unassailable as he set the fastest time of testing so far and completed a day high 156 laps. His 1:19.024 on ultra softs bested the Mercedes duo on the same tires by three tenths of a second and Felipe Massa’s Williams by four tenths. So confident was Vettel that he visibly slowed on the final straight for most of his fast laps, an ominious sign for their challengers that the Ferrari has extra pace it didn’t even feel the need to employ. The tactic led Lewis Hamilton to claim Ferrari were “bluffing” and doing it not only to conceal the car’s true pace, but to play mind games with their rivals.
The only other stand out time of the day belonged to Hamilton who almost matched team mate Valtteri Bottas’ time from yesterday with a 1:19.352, also on the ultra soft tire. The Briton managed 52 laps in the morning session before he handed the car over to Bottas who focused on long runs in the afternoon and only ran a 1:21.819 on softs for his fastest lap of the day.
The midfield looked strong today with Esteban Ocon a surprise third on the time sheets for Force India. The rookie ran a strong 137 laps and hit a 1:20.161 on the ultra softs. Toro Rosso and Haas were right on the heels of the Force India in terms of lap times. Danil Kvyat completed 94 laps for STR with a best time of 1:20.416 on the super softs and Kevin Magnussen hustled the Haas to a 1:20.504 on the ultra softs as the highlight of a 119 lap day.
Red Bull had an ok day as Daniel Ricciardo racked up 128 laps and had a best time of 1:20.824 on the softs. He and Vettel set out for a race simulation about the same time, but the Ferrari quickly left him behind. While the RB13 showed great handling characteristics it clearly wasn’t a match for the SF70H which managed better lap times on harder tire compounds. Ricciardo claimed Red Bull was somewhat “confused” on set ups, but that there was much more to come from both the car and the team though he did admit, “We aren’t quite on the level of Ferrari of Mercedes.”
McLaren-Honda had another day to forget, as Stoffel Vandoorne’s MCL32 caused two red flags in the morning session when it suffered electrical gremlins. The car spend most of the afternoon session in the garage and limited the rookies run to 48 laps, the lowest of any driver, save for Pascal Wehrlein who ran a short program in the Sauber he shared with Marcus Ericsson.
Renault had issues yet again as Jolyon Palmer was only able to make it 53 laps before the car let go at turn 10 which brought the final red flag period of the day while he waited for the flat bed to come pick up his stricken RS-17.
After grabbing headlines with fast times earlier in the week, Williams took it easy today and focused only on long runs for both Felipe Massa and rookie Lance Stroll. Massa completed 80 laps, and Stroll finally got some decent seat time as he racked up 85 data gathering laps.
The final day of pre-season testing is tomorrow, it will be the last hours the team’s have on track before Free Practice 1 in Albert Park on March 24th. Will Ferrari keep their pace advantage? Do Mercedes have an ace up their sleeve? Are Red Bull really behind? How much trouble is McLaren-Honda in? Tomorrow is not likely to answer these questions, but a fuzzy picture of the season to come is emerging, and it looks to be the most promising in years.