(Photo credit: Jose Izquierdo Galiot)
After Wednesday's snow day left many questioning the decision making processes in Formula 1, the teams got back on track (pun definitely intended) as the curtain fell on the first week of 2018 pre-season testing.
The day got off to a damp start, but thankfully not an icy one, and the teams headed to the track on the full wet tyres initially. After the standard installation laps it was only Stoffel Vandoorne and Marcus Ericsson that stayed out to put in any serious running, lapping in the high 1:40s and low 1:50s as conditions slowly improved. They did not improve quickly enough for the Swede though, and he brought out the first red flag of the day as he went off at turn 2.
More drivers emerged after the Sauber recovery break, including Valtteri Bottas in the Mercedes. McLaren were clearly aiming to put as much mileage on the car as possible today, and Vandoorne did so while still remaining top of the leaderboard until he was deposed by Sergey Sirotkin's Williams as the track dried further. It was here that we began to see the first of the inter runners, with Sebastian Vettel going for the gusto in the still-tricky conditions.
It didn't take long for times to tumble, and for Mercedes to hit the front, as Bottas and Vettel brought the leading time down to a 1:33.774 by the Finn, with the McLaren of Vandoorne sandwiched in between. Red Bull finally hit the track with Max Verstappen around 3 hours into the session, and the Dutchman's RB14 shot to the top of the rankings. Not bad for a first try!
Times were now improving rapidly and sure enough it wasn't long before we saw the first slick runners of the day, with Nico Hulkenberg and Bottas opting for the dry rubber right around midday.
The lunch break was once again disposed of to give the teams extra running, and after a few laps of seeing what Hulkenberg and Bottas could do on the slicks, the other teams began to follow suit, with Hulkenberg initially leading the way before Vandoorne emerged on a hypersoft shod McLaren to take top spot. Despite being on the softest rubber available, it's clear that McLaren are looking a lot more competitive than we've seen in recent years.
Lewis Hamilton finally hit the track again around 13:30, heading out on the medium tyre . While Hamilton was setting his first laps of the day, it was ton up for Vandoorne as the Belgian clocked 100 laps, and still with plenty of the day to go for McLaren as Fernando Alonso took the wheel of the MCL33! Other driver swaps for the 'afternoon session' included Chalres Leclerc for Ericsson, and Lance Stroll for Sirotkin.
Hamilton came close to Vandoorne's time on the medium tyres, and even beat it on one occasion only for the time to be deleted for going off track, so it's clear Mercedes have lost none of their pace over the winter. What is less clear is what is going on at Red Bull, with Verstappen having very little running, and then going off at turn 12, bringing out the second red flag of the day as the Red Bull was recovered.
Hamilton was eager to get going again, and finally went fastest on the mediums, which could be an ominous sign of things to come. Even with unknown testing programs and fuel loads, to be fastest on a harder tyre than almost anyone else is effectively laying down a marker for the others to beat. Around this time it was also ton up for Pierre Gasly in the Honda-powered Toro Rosso, further indication that Honda might have finally come good.
The final part of the day saw Sebastian Vettel get up to third on the soft tyre, but despite a late flurry of activity no one was going to beat Hamilton, and the world champion ended the first week of testing on top.
Honda, Honda, and Honda again. After a dismal venture with McLaren, this winter seems to have been the one where things have finally come good, and the Honda-powered Toro Rosso racked up 147 laps in the hands of Pierre Gasly. Only McLaren managed more between their two drivers, with Vandoorne completing 110 and Alonso 51. Not many people would have bet on that at the start of the week!
Mercedes were also impressive, setting the fastest lap of the day on the medium tyre, over 1.5 seconds faster than the nearest medium runner (Carlos Sainz in sixth). The team also managed to get more laps in than title rivals Ferrari, which will no doubt please Toto Wolff and co.
It was also a good day for Sergey Sirotkin, who put in some solid laps in the 'morning session' to quiet the voices that were already beginning to doubt his ability, especially after being beaten by Robert Kubica earlier in the week.
Red Bull again... At 35 laps, Max Verstappen's tally was the lowest of the day, and marked another difficult day for Red Bull in what has already been a turbulent week for the Milton Keynes-based outfit. Whether this was down to more issues we can't be sure at this stage, but it certainly doesn't look good. The team have now completed the third fewest laps of testing so far (211), ahead of only Haas and Force India.
What did you make of the first week of testing? Let us know in the comments below!