Sebastian Vettel teases Ferrari's pace with fastest time of Formula One winter testing

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BARCELONA, Spain -- Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel lowered the benchmark pre-season lap time at the Circuit de Catalunya to a 1:19.024 on the penultimate day of Formula One winter testing.

Vettel completed a series of hot laps on the super-soft and ultra-soft compound tyres towards the end of the morning session, setting his quickest time on his last attempt on the ultra-softs. However, he appeared to back off the throttle just before he crossed the line on his two fastest laps, suggesting the Ferrari's ultimate pace is even quicker than the already-impressive headline time suggests.

"You need to look at more than one single lap time," Vettel said at the lunch break. "In that regard there's still a lot of work to do, we have one and a half days left so I hope we can get a lot of laps this afternoon and another good feeling for the car and hopefully a good finish to the test tomorrow with Kimi in the car. Then we will see."

Regardless of Vettel's cautious optimism, the Ferrari looks genuinely quick. Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton was out on the track moments after Vettel's quick laps -- also using the super-soft and ultra-soft -- and was 0.328s off the Ferrari with his personal best for the week of 1:19.352. His final run coincided with Stoffel Vandoorne's McLaren-Honda breaking down for the second time in 30 minutes, but the red flags came out late enough for Hamilton to push through the final sector and complete his lap.

Reading into Thursday's times remains a guessing game, however, with fuel loads and engine modes for the two laps unknown. The final day of testing is unlikely to offer any further clues and the true relative pace of the two cars will not be clear until qualifying at the opening round in Australia.

Meanwhile, Red Bull's pace is even less clear, with Daniel Ricciardo focusing on long runs on his last day in the car before Melbourne. Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz was in the paddock to monitor progress ahead of the start of the season and saw his car complete a healthy 128 laps. That lap count included a race simulation with fully-fledged pit stops and team principal Christian Horner on the pit wall, but it was interrupted when Daniil Kvyat's Toro Rosso stopped on track.

In total there were four red flags during the day. Kvyat and Renault's Jolyon Palmer both stopped in the afternoon following two stoppages caused by the McLaren-Honda at the end of the morning session.

It was another day of limited mileage for the beleaguered McLaren team, with Stoffel Vandoorne completing just 48 laps. Once again, McLaren focused on short runs in order to make as much progress through its testing check-list as possible, but electrical issues twice stopped the car on track. Vandoorne used the ultra-soft tyres before lunch, completing one flying lap with a best overall time of 1:21.348 before the car ground to a halt in the run-off area at Turn 10.

Positions three to five indicated how close the battle in the midfield could be this year, with Esteban Ocon in the Force India, Kvyat in the Toro Rosso and Kevin Magnussen in the Haas split by just over 0.3s. Ocon was on the ultra-soft, Kvyat on the super-soft and Magnussen on the ultra-soft, suggesting there could be a little more to come from the Toro Rosso, but a general convergence in performance towards the end of the test.

Renault is hoping to join that battle this year, but had a slow day with a series of problems in the morning and Palmer's stoppage in the afternoon. The team had originally planned to send Nico Hulkenberg out in the afternoon, but the loss in running time meant they kept Palmer in the car for the full day.

Valtteri Bottas joined the action in the afternoon to focus on long runs in the Mercedes, with a best lap time of 1:21.819 and 95 laps. That put him ahead of Pascal Wehrlein in the Sauber, who also took part in the afternoon session after teammate Marcus Ericsson completed 88 laps in the morning.

The two Williams drivers were at the bottom of the timesheets after both focused on long runs. Lance Stroll completed 85 laps in the morning, following up on a trouble-free 59 laps yesterday afternoon and giving him some much-needed track time after last week's accidents. Team-mate Felipe Massa took over in the afternoon with 80 laps also focusing on long runs.

Times at close:

1. Sebastian Vettel - Ferrari - 1:19.024 - 156 laps
2. Lewis Hamilton - Mercedes - 1:19.352 - 52 laps (morning)
3. Esteban Ocon - Force India - 1:20.161 - 137 laps
4. Daniil Kvyat - Toro Rosso - 1:20.416 - 94 laps
5. Kevin Magnussen - Haas - 1:20.504 - 119 laps
6. Daniel Ricciardo - Red Bull - 1:20.824 - 128 laps
7. Stoffel Vandoorne - McLaren - 1:21.348 - 48 laps
8. Valtteri Bottas - Mercedes - 1:21.819 - 95 laps (afternoon)
9. Pascal Wehrlein - Sauber - 1:22.347 - 44 laps (afternoon)
10. Jolyon Palmer - Renault - 1:22.418 - 53 laps
11. Marcus Ericsson - Sauber - 1:23.330 - 88 laps (morning)
12. Felipe Massa - Williams - 1:24.443 - 80 laps (afternoon)
13. Lance Stroll - Williams - 1:24.863 - 85 laps (morning)