Ferrari sets impressive pace on penultimate day of testing

MONTEMELO, Spain - Although there are no winners in pre-season testing, Ferrari signaled its intent ahead of the new Formula One season by shattering the track record at the Circuit de Catalunya on Thursday.

For the first time this week Sebastian Vettel went out on a performance run in his new Ferrari and used Pirelli's hyper-soft qualifying tyres to set a 1:17.182, just ahead of the lunch break. The time was not only a the fastest ever on this layout of the Circuit de Catalunya -- eclipsing Daniel Ricciardo's short-lived record in the Red Bull on Wednesday by nearly 0.9s -- it was also 1.2s faster than anyone else on Thursday.

Ferrari had tasked Vettel with testing Pirelli's three softest tyre compounds over a series of five-lap runs ahead of lunch, and a combination of warm track temperatures, low winds and an increasingly grippy track surface allowed him to extract the impressive time from the new hyper-soft tyre. If he had managed to combine all three of his fastest sectors in a single lap, he theoretically could have gone even quicker and set a 1:17.026.

But as impressive as the time was, comparisons with Ferrari's main rivals Mercedes and Red Bull are still hard to make. Neither of the latter two teams focused on performance testing on Thursday and Mercedes has not brought any sets of hyper-soft in its tyre allocation for the test. As a result, a true reading of the one-lap pace of the top teams is not likely until qualifying day at the Australian Grand Prix.

"It's just a time," Vettel said. "There's been a lot of times, what's important is the car was working all day. We did nearly 200 laps so that was good!

"Overall the conditions were better than yesterday. It's always difficult to compare but it matters in a couple of week's time, that's when its serious."

A fairer comparison -- although still imperfect -- was over race distances, which all three big teams completed at different times of the day. The initial indications suggest Mercedes has the edge while Ferrari and Red Bull were close to each other. But the comparison is still limited by a number of factors, including track conditions, the use of different tyre compounds at different times of the day and a lack of clarity on what exactly the teams were aiming to achieve. Again, a true reading of the competitive order will not be ascertained until F1 travels to Melbourne.

Like Vettel, Haas' Kevin Magnussen was also working through performance runs in the morning session and set the second best time of the day with a 1:18.360 on the super-soft tyres. Considering Magnussen was using a tyre two steps harder than Vettel, the American team will be encouraged by the time, which also put it ahead of midfield rivals Toro Rosso, Renault and McLaren.

Pierre Gasly was third fastest in the Toro Rosso after improving on his morning time with a second hyper-soft tyre run in the afternoon. He finished the session 0.003s behind Magnussen and 0.312s faster than Nico Hulkenberg in the Renault, who set his time on the hyper-soft tyre in the morning. Carlos Sainz was another 0.050s slower than his teammate after taking over at lunch and also used the hyper-soft tyre in the afternoon.

After reliability issues on the two previous days this week, McLaren racked up an impressive 146 laps on Thursday. Stoffel Vandoorne started the day completing performance-style runs in first hour morning before McLaren pulled him in for 90 minutes before lunch to check something they had seen in the data. He returned to the track in the afternoon to complete a further 100 laps and in doing so rounded off one of the team's most productive test day of the pre-season.

Marcus Ericsson, who prompted the only red flag of the day with a late spin into the gravel trap at Turn 4, was seventh fastest in the Sauber ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes; the reigning world champion took over long-run duties from Valtteri Bottas at lunch. Neither Mercedes driver attempted anything resembling a performance run but combined the two drivers completed 181 laps. Hamilton will be back on track in the morning for his final stint in the car before Melbourne.

Williams development driver Robert Kubica spent the morning in the FW41 before handing over to race driver Lance Stroll in the afternoon. The two combined notched up 139 laps combined and were split by 0.6s at the end of the day.

Sergio Perez was eleventh fastest after 158 laps in the Force India, while Max Verstappen racked up a mammoth 187 laps in the Red Bull, including a race simulation.

Times at close:

1. Vettel, Ferrari, 1:17.182, 188 laps (Hyper-soft)
2. Magnussen, Haas, 1:18.360, 153 laps (Super-soft)
3. Gasly, Toro Rosso, 1:18.363, 169 laps (Hyper-soft)
4. Hulkenberg, Renault, 1:18.675, 79 laps (Hyper-soft)
5. Sainz, Renault, 1:18.725, 69 laps (Hyper-soft)
6. Vandoorne, McLaren, 1:18.855, 151 laps (Hyper-soft)
7. Ericsson, Sauber, 1:19.244, 146 laps (Hyper-soft)
8. Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:19.296, 84 laps (Medium)
9. Bottas, Mercedes, 1:19.532, 97 laps (Medium)
10. Kubica, Williams, 1:19.629, 73 laps (Super-soft)
11. Perez, Force India, 1:19.634, 159 laps (Hyper-soft)
12. Verstappen, Red Bull, 1:19.842, 187 laps (Soft)
13. Stroll, Williams, 1:20.262, 67 laps (Ultra-soft)