By Ollie BarstowFollow @OllieBarstowF1 on Twitter

If there is one term used more than any other during F1 testing it is 'hard to say'. Well, maybe that and the ubiquitous racer go-to 'for sure'.

In fairness, it is indeed difficult to answer many of the inevitable questions that will arise over 8 days of varied running - different fuel levels, different programmes, different engine potency -, while there is always an element of 'cloak and dagger' in the way teams attempt to disguise whether their hand is a straight or a royal flush.

It makes deciphering the true hierarchy of the F1 order heading to Melbourne tricky to say, erm, for sure...

And yet, however hard you internally play down Ferrari's scintillating form with the SF70H these last two weeks, it is almost impossible to do so.

It has become something of an uneasy tradition for Ferrari to tease quick pace during pre-season testing. It topped the timesheets in 2015 and 2016 prior to leaving for Melbourne, only for the sandbagging Mercedes to reveal a superior hand when it mattered.

However, while there was always a sense of 'how much' not 'if' Mercedes had more speed available to it on those occasions, there are few indications from Mercedes to suggest it has a similar advantage this time around. In fact, - whisper it quietly - Ferrari is probably the team to beat.

First things first, Ferrari and Mercedes have (as always) been running very different programmes over these last two weeks and like-for-like comparisons are limited unless they head out on the same tyres at the same time. Usually, however, you have to factor in different times of the day, the length of the stints and - always - fuel level.

It means ordering the teams during testing is usually nothing more than a game of educated guessing.

Regardless, there is no doubt Ferrari has created a very quick car. Indeed, it is a measure of Ferrari's ability to turn on the pace in the SF70H so instantly and so consistently - regardless of the driver - that has really captured the attention of rivals and heightened expectations ahead of the 2017 F1 opener.

Ferrari has been rapid over a single lap... though this is perhaps not such a surprise

A series of simulated qualifying runs by Vettel lit up the timesheets on the penultimate day of testing, the German getting remarkably close to cracking the 1m 18s bracket despite lifting off out of the final corner so as not to give away exactly what the scarlet car was capable of.

With Kimi Raikkonen proceeding to post a 1m 18.634s during the final day on the super-soft tyres - which in turn came after a rapid series of laps - it was hard to escape the buzz as we left the Circuit de Catalunya.

It is perhaps no surprise Ferrari has focused a little more on lap times that will inevitably (if unintentionally) write headlines. Its qualifying form was arguably its weakest link last season and in a year where drivers are predicting it will be harder to overtake, nailing performance over a single lap is more important than ever.

What is striking, however, is how reliable the SF70H has been. Despite Raikkonen's trip into the gravel on Wednesday and niggles that stopped it on the final day, Ferrari has barely missed any track time since the start of testing, while customer outfit Haas revealed all of its problems have not stemmed from the engine.

It hasn't been a test without drama, but the SF70H - and other Ferrari cars - have been largely reliable

Interestingly, when Sauber was asked how it could possibly fit the 2016 specification engine into the new dimensions of the 2017 F1 cars, it said it had been given enough engineering leeway to do so, suggesting Ferrari hasn't had to start from scratch with a crucial element of its package. By contrast, Mercedes, Renault and Honda have had to come in with a clean sheet of paper.

The SF70H itself is a curious beast as well. Many commented on how 'similar' it looked at first glance when the virtual garage lifted to reveal the car in Ferrari's bizarre and brief video on launch day, only for many to eat words when a closer inspection revealed some very interesting interpretations of the new regulations.

In the flesh, the sculpted sidepods and unusual wing atop the engine cover are unique to Ferrari, designs that have gotten rival engineers poring over the finer details to consider their benefits. Even Red Bull's Adrian Newey said he didn't immediately understand Ferrari's 'unknown' cooling system, while the team has been more secretive than usual this winter with barely any opportunities to talk with the drivers and no team availability either.

The design of the SF70H has left rival engineers somewhat baffled... and impressed

You only had to see commotion of the mechanics when the SF70H ran out of fuel just in front of the Mercedes garage last week, the team not even waiting to let Vettel out of the car before throwing a cover over it.

Of course, Vettel and Raikkonen are noticeably motivated by the return to high downforce, aggressive cars to push over a single lap, but the race pace has been good too with Red Bull fairly honest in its assessment that the Scuderia has a sizeable edge over it so far.

As for Mercedes, it hasn't quite had an opportunity to show its form. Different running programmes, niggling moments and bad timing after Hamilton was denied his ultra-soft lap thanks to a red flag on Thursday have conspired to leave a few question marks hanging over the revised team.

Notably, Hamilton went bold on Thursday by insisting Ferrari is bluffing and it is actually even quicker than it is showing, though the fact this came in Mercedes' own press release means there is probably a bit of 'artistic licence' (shall we say, a 'double bluff') to take into consideration.

Of course, speculation is just that. We will only truly know for sure when action begins in Melbourne and cynics will point out Ferrari has raised expectations before FP1 in Melbourne before only for Mercedes to stretch its legs.

But the signs are surely encouraging for those hoping Ferrari can challenge for its first F1 title in a decade, or at the very least give Mercedes - including its new technical director and ex-Ferrari man James Allison - something to really think about in these two short weeks.

Roll on Australia...

 

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