For the first time in pre-season testing, Ferrari hinted at the true pace of its 2019 car by setting a time within a tenth of a second of the all-time lap record at the Circuit de Catalunya.
The lap was set on Pirelli's softest compound tyre, the C5, and is the fastest time in testing this year. Prior to the lap, Ferrari's quickest times this year had been set on harder compound tyres, but the combination of low fuel and soft rubber saw Charles Leclerc clock a 1:16.231.
Leclerc completed a number of low-fuel runs in the morning session and, had he hooked up all three of his fastest sectors over a single lap, would have managed a 1:16.166. Last year's pole position time at the Spanish Grand Prix was a 1:16.173 -- although given the different circuit conditions and tyres, the comparison tells us little more than the 2019 regulations have done little to slow the cars over the winter.
The next fastest driver was Toro Rosso's Alex Albon, 0.651s off Leclerc, using the same compound tyre as the Ferrari. Lando Norris secured third place for McLaren, a further 0.202s off Albon, while also using the C5 compound. However, comparisons between the top three teams on single lap pace remain tricky, as Mercedes opted not to focus on performance on the softest compounds, setting its fastest time on the C2s, while Pierre Gasly's C5 time seems anomalously slow compared to other times set by the Red Bull this week.
Asked if he could have matched Leclerc's effort, Gasly said: "Honestly, no. To be fair, I think they are really fast, they show some good pace, try to focus on ourselves and not focus too much on the others. We have some potential, we tested a lot of things, we have good performance, but we have to work hard as well as they seem really fast."
Speaking about his lap time, Leclerc added: "Obviously, I think as every team, we are not flat out. There's still some margin, a bit obviously in myself. I still have to learn, I get more comfortable with the car lap after lap and with the car itself, so it's looking good for now."
A long-run comparison between Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull looked possible in the afternoon as all three teams attempted a race simulation after lunch. However, a high-speed accident for Gasly on the approach to Turn 9 ruled the Red Bull out and interrupted the runs of Ferrari and Mercedes. Gasly lost control of the RB15 as he entered the corner, spun through the gravel and made heavy contact with the barriers. The accident brought a premature end to Red Bull's afternoon and gave the team's nightshift mechanics a heavy workload ahead of the final day of testing on Friday.
"Yeah I made a mistake in Turn 9 and basically lost the car, pretty big crash, one of the biggest crash I had so far. Long night for the mechanics, sorry for them, but most important is we can get Max [Verstappen] in the car tomorrow. Focus on the positives -- we managed to do a lot of testing and things to analyse."
Despite the interruption, Mercedes and Ferrari completed their race sims, with the Ferrari averaging lap times 0.25s faster than Mercedes over the course of 66 laps. Given that both cars had race fuel loads, used the C2 compound over three stints and started within 30 minutes of each other, the coinciding race sims are arguably the closest thing we have seen to a true comparison in testing so far. It also backs up theories that Ferrari holds the edge ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Further down the grid, a flurry of qualifying style laps by the midfield teams saw a number of competitive times split by less than a second. Williams remained the outsider as it continues to play catch-up for its late start to testing, but the team made progress nonetheless and finished the day with 140 laps for George Russell.
Times at close
1. Leclerc, Ferrari, 1:16.231, 138 laps (C5)
2. Albon, Toro Rosso, 1:16.882, 118 laps (C5)
3. Norris, McLaren, 1:17.084, 84 laps (C5)
4. Gasly, Red Bull, 1:17.091, 65 laps (C5)
5. Ricciardo, Renault, 1:17.204, 65 laps (C5)
6. Hulkenberg, Renault, 1:496, 73 laps (C5)
7. Stroll, Racing Point, 1:17.556, 103 laps (C5)
8. Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo, 1:17.639, 71 laps (C5)
9. Grosjean, Haas, 1:17.864, 16 laps (C5)
10. Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:18.097, 85 laps (C2)
11. Russell, Williams, 1:18.130, 140 laps (C5)
12. Magnussen, Haas, 1:18.199, 53 laps (C3)
13. Bottas, Mercedes, 1:18.863, 96 laps