MANAMA (Reuters) - Ferrari signalled a return to form in Bahrain Grand Prix practice on Friday with Sebastian Vettel and new team mate Charles Leclerc well clear of the rest at the top of the timesheets.
The German, a four times Formula One world champion who trailed the Monegasque in the first of the day’s two sessions, lapped the floodlit 5.4-km Sakhir desert track in one minute 28.846 seconds, pipping Leclerc by 0.035.
Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton, fourth in the afternoon behind team mate Valtteri Bottas, was the quickest Mercedes driver in the evening as the pair swapped positions.
The Briton was still 0.603 seconds off Vettel’s benchmark while Bottas, winner of the season-opener in Australia two weeks ago, had been nearly a second off Leclerc in the afternoon session.
The speed Ferrari showed on Friday came as a relief to the Italian glamour team, even if rivals are closer in qualifying and Sunday’s race.
Tipped as the pre-season favourites after strong testing times, the Maranello-based team were surprisingly slow in Melbourne.
Vettel and Leclerc finished fourth and fifth, and nearly a minute behind Bottas, but Bahrain has been good for Ferrari historically with six wins and Vettel triumphant last year and in 2017.
“The car is not yet where it was in Barcelona. Certainly, it’s better today than in Australia,” said Vettel.
“It was a better day overall, but we still need to pick up the pace for tomorrow. I am not entirely happy...we were on a different strategy compared to other drivers and teams, that’s why for tomorrow we still need to improve.”
Mercedes principal Toto Wolff said the Ferrari had impressive straight line power: “Definitely a different Ferrari to what we have seen in Melbourne,” added the Austrian.
“It looks like maybe Ferrari has a tiny edge on us at the moment but qualifying can be different and we’re going to squeeze everything we have, like a lemon, and then be there hopefully.”
Hamilton agreed: “The Ferraris have been quick from the get-go and picked up more pace from there, so it’s completely different to what we’ve seen in Melbourne,” said the five times world champion.
“At the moment it looks like the Ferraris are ahead so we have to keep our heads down, keep working, analyse things tonight and try and come back stronger tomorrow. I think as we get to qualifying, everything will get a little bit closer.”
Nico Hulkenberg was an impressive fifth-fastest for Renault beating Max Verstappen’s Honda-powered Red Bull by less than a 10th of a second.
The 21-year-old Dutchman, who started the Red Bull-Honda partnership in Australia with third place, had been fifth in the afternoon.
Kevin Magnussen was seventh fastest ahead of McLaren’s British rookie Lando Norris and Haas team mate Romain Grosjean. Russian Daniil Kvyat rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso.
Struggling Williams, former world champions who confirmed co-founder Patrick Head had returned to the team as a consultant to help address their car problems, were at the bottom of the timesheets again.
British rookie George Russell was 19th, three seconds off the pace but ahead of Polish team mate Robert Kubica, who was four seconds slower than Vettel’s benchmark.
On a largely incident-free day, Vettel suffered a tyre smoking spin at the exit of Turn Two during the evening’s running but continued.
Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi and Hulkenberg banged wheels in the dying seconds of the opening session. They were called in to see the stewards, who let them off with no further action.
Canadian Lance Stroll also spun out early in the session, nudging the barriers with the front wing of his Racing Point car.
Editing by Alan Baldwin, Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis