SAKHIR, Bahrain -- They say it's always in the last place you look, and after Ferrari's pace went missing in Australia, it made a very obvious return during Friday practice in Bahrain. Sebastian Vettel and teammate Charles Leclerc were split by 0.035 seconds at the top of the time sheets and held a significant 0.6-second advantage over Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes in third place.
Friday's lap times were more in line with expectations from pre-season testing and add weight to the theory that Mercedes' dominance in Australia was something of an anomaly. They also suggest Ferrari has found and addressed the problem that held it back so much in Melbourne.
But don't be fooled: The competitive picture hasn't completely reversed in the space of two weeks. All the evidence suggests Ferrari was running a more aggressive engine mode than its rivals in Friday practice and the rest of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend promises to be closer.
"I think the results of today are misleading," Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said. "I'm expecting quite a different situation tomorrow in qualifying, expecting our competitors to be very strong again.
"But certainly from what we've seen today the situation is quite different to Australia, which means we have progressed, and we have progressed compared to Australia.
"Will that be sufficient? I don't know. We need to work on our car based on the feeling and the data we've got today -- let's try to improve it for tomorrow."
The long-run data also hints at a much closer fight between the top three, with Mercedes looking like the fastest car over a long run on the high-degradation soft compound and Ferrari and Red Bull looking strong on the more durable medium. Renault also looks quick on race pace, backing up the promise shown by the impressive single lap Nico Hulkenberg registered to take the fifth-fastest time overall.
Is Ferrari really 0.6s clear?
One of the unusual characteristics of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend is the massive fluctuation in temperatures between sessions. Second practice, qualifying and the race all take place once the sun has set, while FP1 and FP3 take place in the burning heat of the afternoon sun. That puts added emphasis on gathering data in FP2 and explains why Ferrari bucked the trend by attempting two low-fuel, soft-tyre runs rather than the usual one on Friday evening. It means it is down a set of soft tyres heading into FP3 and probably will not focus on a fast lap in that session. Mercedes, meanwhile, stuck to a more traditional Friday run plan, with a series of banker laps to get a feel for any setup changes between FP1 and FP2, before a quick lap on soft tyres and a race simulation at the end.
So that explains some of the gap between the two teams: Ferrari had two attempts to get it right and was completing its last one-lap dress rehearsal before qualifying (complete with more powerful engine settings), while Mercedes got just one bite at the cherry and likely was running lower settings. That is backed up by Ferrari having a whopping 0.7-second advantage on the straights over Mercedes.
One theory for Ferrari's unusual run plan is that it struggled with cooling levels in Australia and wanted to attempt extra running with the engine turned up to verify fixes in FP2. Binotto played down the suggestion that cooling had been the root cause of the problem in Australia, but he agreed Ferrari had its engine turned up higher.
"I will not go into details on what happened [in Australia], that's our matter," he said. "I saw a lot of speculation on the newspapers and internet and what I read is not fully true. We did not have issues of cooling, I may tell you that. At the end, in Australia, it has been a sum of many factors, from the power unit to the set up to tyre management. And I think it's only the sum of what we have seen in Australia.
"I think tomorrow [in qualifying] it will be certainly a tough battle. The others will be very strong tomorrow. It's quite obvious, you may see the GPS data, the speed on the straights, we were certainly pushing different engine modes compared to what the others were pushing.
"We're expecting a tough battle tomorrow, but I think more important is staying focused on ourselves -- we improved our situation after Australia. This one is quite a different track. Let's say we didn't have today the problem we suffered in the Australia, thanks to the track and thanks to the modification we made."
Another factor to take into account is that Valtteri Bottas had to abort his first attempt at a quick lap after coming across two slow-moving Ferraris on his arrival at Turn 1. Although he backed off exiting Turn 3, it would have taken the edge off his tyres and helps explain his 0.215-second gap to Hamilton in the first sector on their flying laps. However, he still managed to nail the middle sector -- with a time 0.151 seconds faster than Hamilton's -- so if you combine all of Mercedes' best sectors across the two cars, the gap to Ferrari closes further. Nevertheless, Hamilton still believes Ferrari has the edge ahead of qualifying.
"On my side, I have been particularly struggling with the balance of the car, but what you do is just keep your head down and keep working," he said. "I'm sure we will come back and analyse things a little bit before tomorrow, but at the moment the Ferraris are quite far ahead."
Long run pace
Over long runs, Bottas looked fast on the soft tyres and completed a relatively long 17-lap run. That will bode well for the start of the race assuming the top 10 have to use the soft compound to progress through Q2 and therefore will start on that tyre. However, on the medium-compound tyre, which suffered less degradation and is likely to be favoured in the race, Ferrari appeared to have the upper hand.
Vettel spun on the first lap of his soft-tyre race simulation, forcing him to abort the run and switch to mediums. But because no changes to fuel levels take place between long runs, it means he was on relatively high fuel when he moved onto his 12-lap medium-tyre run. His average on that compound was only marginally slower than Hamilton despite the fuel disadvantage and hints at stronger underlying race pace than the raw data suggests.
Although Red Bull seems to be struggling for pace on the soft tyres, Max Verstappen was very competitive on the mediums. His raw pace on those tyres was quicker than both Mercedes and Ferrari, but it is not unusual for Red Bull to look good over long runs on Friday. And it remains doubtful Verstappen and teammate Pierre Gasly will have the pace to challenge for the front row of the grid in qualifying.
"In the second session, especially on the medium tyre, we were really competitive," he said. "I should have been faster today, but out of the final corner I had a little issue so I lost a few tenths there. But then on the softest tyre I didn't feel the grip like it should have been, so we have to look into that.
"But on the long runs we were quite competitive on the medium tyre. I think that will be the most dominant tyre, so let's see. Still a bit of work to do."
The good news is that we are left with a competitive picture that looks far closer than it was in Australia and one that is more in line with the order we saw in pre-season testing. It's only Friday practice, but the early indications are that Ferrari holds the edge, albeit not by an unbeatable margin.