Lewis Hamilton says Ferrari have an advantage of half-a-second per lap over his Mercedes team, with Sebastian Vettel keeping the Italians on top on the final day of 2019 pre-season testing in Barcelona.
Vettel, returning to the cockpit for the first time since his crash on Wednesday, set a new testing lap record on Friday by eclipsing Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc’s time of one minute and 16.231 seconds by one-hundredth of a second.
But Mercedes finally posted what looks to be a more representative time, with Valtteri Bottas setting a time of one minute 16.561 to trail Ferrari by around three-tenths of a second.
“I think the gap (to Ferrari) is potentially half a second,” reigning world champion Hamilton told reporters.
“Ferrari are the fastest. This is going to be the toughest battle yet. Ferrari’s pace is very, very good at the moment. The challenge is going to be harder than ever.”
But Hamilton added: “Testing is testing. There’s no reward for being quick in testing.
“We don’t know because everyone has different engine modes and fuel loads. It will be four races before we really know where we stand.”
The opening round of the 2019 world championship is scheduled to start in Melbourne on March 17.
Mercedes plan to make more significant changes to their W10 car, but Hamilton added that he has “no reason to expect” the gap to Ferrari to decrease.
“We could get there and it could be bigger, we could get there and it could be less,” Hamilton added.
“There’s no way looking at the GPS to say what fuel load we’re on and what engine mode they’re on. They’re faster on the straights than us, for example.
“Of course we hope it’s not bigger than we might see now and we hope that it’s better.
“But we can’t bank on that so we’ve just got to work towards closing that gap that we think might be there.”
Bottas put some of the fastest C5 rubber on his car to easily trump the previous fastest time recorded by other teams.
Daniil Kvyat continued to underline the performance potential in the Honda power unit by going third for Toro Rosso with one minute 16.898 seconds.
The Russian was ahead of his former team-mate Carlos Sainz in the McLaren and the Haas of Romain Grosjean.
The first session of the day ended under red flags, meanwhile, with Kimi Raikkonen stopping out on track in his Alfa Romeo C38.
Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene refused to point the finger of blame at Sebastian Vettel for the Prancing Horse’s failure to sustain an assault on Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes’ vice-like grip of Formula One.
The Italian marque – spearheaded by the four-time world champion – came into the season in confident fashion after an encouraging pre-season testing programme.
And it quickly became apparent that 2018 could produce a much-needed title battle after four years of merciless Mercedes dominance.
Vettel won the season’s opening two races and four of the first 10 as the two titans of F1 traded blow for blow in the first half of 2018, with the lead at the top of the driver’s standings changing numerous times.
The gap was eight in favour of the 31-year-old German following his triumph at Silverstone in July, as the season approached the halfway point.
Up next was Vettel’s home race, Hockenheim, where victory would have been a huge boost to his title chances. And it looked on the cards after Ferrari locked out the front row, with Kimi Raikkonen second.
But an uncharacteristic error from Vettel caused him to crash out while leading the race and that would change the entire complexion of the season.
He would win again at Spa but more implosions at Monza and then Suzuka left the door open for Hamilton. And the 33-year-old took full advantage, taking the chequered flag in seven of the final 10 races leading up to the season finale in Abu Dhabi – with the title clinched in Mexico.
Despite a woeful second half of the season for both team and leading driver, Arrivabene talked of needing to discover the “winning habit” in order to be more successful in 2019.
“The habit to win,” the 61-year-old answered when asked what Ferrari needed to do to topple Mercedes next year – having enjoyed statistically their best season since 2008 this term.
“We need to win enough to win the championship, of course. Then it depends on the performance of the other teams, how many.
“Having said so, the habit to win, it’s very simple. If you are doing one-two it doesn’t have to be an exceptional event. It must be a habit, as I said. In that way you are changing and you swap your mentality from a fighter to a winner. That’s it.”
He also refuted suggestions the reason Hamilton ran away with the championship was down to drivers – in particular Vettel – making too many mistakes, and not the fact they were unable to secure one-two finishes.
“This is your opinion,” Arrivabene told one journalist.
“What you want me to do? I give you an answer, I give you an answer, having said that what you said is not correct because we started the season in very good shape and then as Sebastian said yesterday, he made mistake.
“Then from Monza onward we were not there with the car and this is a fact, too, if you’re talking about facts.
“I don’t want to point the finger at the team or on the driver. If we are losing, we are losing together. If we are winning, we are winning together. And that’s it.”
In doing so the Fin forced Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton to wait at least one more week to claim his fifth career Formula One championship.
Watch Raikkonen reflect on the rare victory below.