Formula One: Sebastian Vettel downplays Ferrari's tag as race favourites

German Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari in action during the Formula One pre-season test sessions at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Montmelo, Spain.
German Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari in action during the Formula One pre-season test sessions at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Montmelo, Spain.PHOTO: EPA

BARCELONA (REUTERS) - Sebastian Vettel lapped fastest for Ferrari on the penultimate day of Formula One's pre-season testing on Thursday (March 9) but refused to accept the mantle of favourite from Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton.

The four-time world champion wrapped up his preparations for the opening Australian Grand Prix on March 26 with the fastest lap yet around Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya - a 1min 19.024sec effort.

The German also completed a mammoth stint of 156 laps, equivalent to 21/2 race distances in the space of a day.

Three-time world champion Hamilton was second quickest in 1min 19.352sec, 0.328sec slower, with both men lapping on the fastest ultrasoft tyres.

The Briton, who did 52 laps but shared duties with Finnish team-mate Valtteri Bottas, had said on Tuesday that "Ferrari must be the favourite" and he saw nothing to change his mind two days later.

"I think Ferrari are bluffing and that they are a lot quicker than they are showing," said the Mercedes driver, who won 10 races last year but still lost out in the title battle to retired team-mate Nico Rosberg.

"They're very close to us. It's difficult right now to say exactly who is quicker. But they are very close, if not faster."

Bottas said Mercedes were not relaxing and "not in a comfortable situation at all".

"Ferrari are looking very strong, Red Bull can always surprise, and other teams can be strong. But Ferrari look solid, strong and fast - and who knows what people will bring to Melbourne," added Bottas.

Ferrari, Formula One's glamour team who are still hurting after a 2016 season without a win that left them third overall, have gone about testing with minimum fanfare and little in the way of media activity.

With plenty of pressure on them, they have also tried to play down expectations - which Vettel continued to do on Thursday.

"I think if you look at the amount of laps Mercedes has done, if you look historically how slow they were going in the test, how much they were able to ramp it up for the races...I think they're the ones to beat," he said.

McLaren, struggling to get their Honda engine up to speed, had another difficult day with Belgian rookie Stoffel Vandoorne seventh fastest but doing only 48 laps and twice bringing out the red flags in the morning session.