Mercedes turned up a gear during free practice for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, with the German marque well clear of Ferrari in long runs.
Pre-season testing had suggested a close battle between Mercedes and Ferrari, with the latter appearing to make massive headways after a winless 2016 campaign.
However, the first day of F1 2017 provided a firm reality check, with Lewis Hamilton fastest in both qualifying and long-run pace.
During his race simulation on ultrasoft compound, Hamilton’s average time was 1:28.057 - over a second clear of what Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen managed in their long runs on the same compound.
It is important to note that Ferrari’s - and particularly Vettel’s - long run was longer, but that doesn’t explain the one second deficit to the Silver Arrow.
Speaking after the session, Vettel believed that balance issues cost Ferrari dearly, but it is unlikely that set-up changes will help bridge the gap to Mercedes, which is known to turn up its engine further in qualifying.
Meanwhile, Hamilton felt his car was “night and day” different to pre-season testing, suggesting that Mercedes weren’t sandbagging in Barcelona.
Red Bull a distant third
Perhaps the biggest surprise during Melbourne was how far Red Bull stood in the pecking order. Not only did they fell behind Ferrari on the timesheets, they were also slower in the race simulation.
Daniel Ricciardo’s race simulation was uneven, with little consistency in laptimes. Max Verstappen’s off-track excursion - and the consequent floor damage that kept him out of the rest of the session - came as a further set back, restricting the amount of data Red Bull collected from Friday.
Pirelli has suggested that most teams are likely to choose a one-stop strategy on Sunday, despite the introduction of the softest compound in their range.
However, the Italian maker is confident that drivers should be able to push to the limit, one of the objectives behind the new tyres.
Bottas - 1:27.967
by Rachit Thukral