Nico Hulkenberg was fastest on the final day of the first pre-season test at the Circuit de Barcelona – Catalunya. The Renault driver set a 17.393 to go a tenth and a half faster than Toro Rosso’s Alex Albon with his teammate Daniel Ricciardo third.
The two Renault drivers shared the driving between them, but its Hulkenberg who can claim to be fastest this week setting the fastest time of the test and being almost half a second faster than Ricciardo. The German set the fastest time during the afternoon session followed by Albon.
Mercedes finally began to unleash some pace during the final day of the test with Valtteri Bottas finishing fourth. His teammate five times champion Lewis Hamilton had topped the times in the morning with a 17.977 on the C4 compound the second fastest tyres.
Bottas managed a 17.857 on the fastest tyre, but the team clearly shifted its focus from performance to pace work, the world champions have spent the opening three days near the bottom of the times. But that came at a cost when it came to mileage.
Bottas told Sky Sports, “Ferrari are very strong – there is no doubt about that. We feel at this point maybe they are a bit ahead.”
Renault’s and Toro Rosso’s outright pace is not the real leaders as they spent more time on shorter performance runs, using both low fuel and the fastest compounds of tyre.
Charles Leclerc was sixth fastest for Ferrari, the teams focus appearing to switch to long runs and aero testing because his time was set on the hardest compound of tyres. The Monacan completed 138 laps going third in terms of mileage.
Leclerc believes Ferrari’s rivals may be ‘sandbagging’, or hiding their true pace, at this test.
It remains unclear at the halfway point of testing whether Ferrari has managed to steal a march on the current world champions, but it is clear that the car does have pace. The real answer will not become clear until qualifying in Melbourne.
Lando Norris going seventh fastest and completing 132 laps for his McLaren team. But the Bristolian suffered his third error of the week, beaching the car after being caught out on cold tyres.
After missing most of the test Williams concentrated on learning their car and drivers George Russell, another Briton making his debut this season, and Robert Kubica propped up the times.
Kubica told BBC News “In order to improve, we have to make a bigger step than the others or we will be where we were last year. It is not correct to talk about performance of the car or feelings. We see next week.”
Antonio Giovinazzi also managed to run decently going eighth fastest behind Norris. Proving that Alfa Romeo, the previous Sauber team, has made another step over the winter and could be a strong midfield team this season.
Haas teammates Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen managed around a race distance each going ninth and tenth fastest. Grosjean six-hundredths of a second faster, but for Magnussen, it was some much-needed mileage as most of his running hindered by problems.
Pierre Gasly finished the day just the top ten, his best time an 18.7 on the medium tyres. However, his Red Bull team confirmed they were focused on higher-fuelled runs with its new Honda power unit than outright performance at this stage. Gasly completed 146 laps across the day, second only to Antonio Giovinazzi’s 154 for Alfa Romeo.
Racing Point has a lot of work to do, the team has yet to exceed 80 laps in a day. Lance Stroll took the wheel and set the twelveth fastest time. After conducting more laps than Renault, Williams got within 1.333s of Stroll in the hands of George Russell in the afternoon.
At the halfway point and with three weeks until first practice in Melbourne, it looks as if the front runners remain as they were when the final test of 2018 finished in November and that the midfield remains as close as they were last year.
This, however, remains early days and answers will not come until the first qualifying session. Mercedes remain the favourites given their reliability with the speed expected to be shown next week.