Ferrari and Mercedes’ fight has been the big story of the past two seasons in Formula 1, making comparisons through the pre-season testing period natural.

Harking back to the first end-of-day analysis piece I did at the start of the week in Barcelona, any deductions must be taken with a pinch of salt. It is only testing, after all.

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But even the teams themselves cannot help but begin to engage in a little bit of gamesmanship as they size up their opposition, with the first real blows emerging in the past couple of days in Barcelona.

Ferrari hit the headlines on the opening two days of the test as Sebastian Vettel and teammate Charles Leclerc took turns at the head of the timesheets. While Daniil Kvyat was able to take P1 for Toro Rosso on the third day, Ferrari once again impressed with its mileage, continuing the trend through day four.

Mercedes opted for a different tactic in its driver running, alternating Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas between sessions instead of day-by-day. It also focused entirely on long runs through the first three days of testing, only appearing towards the head of the field on the final day as both Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton finished inside the top five.

Out and out pace is never something teams are looking for this early on in testing. Mercedes left testing last year privately confident of its chances in Melbourne, only for Ferrari to spring a big surprise as it finally showed its hand. Smoke and mirrors is all part of the game.

But with that comes the inevitable talking up of rivals. Hamilton and Bottas shared their thoughts on Ferrari’s pace when they spoke on Wednesday and Thursday respectively, singing from the same hymn sheet: the new SF90 looks fast.

“Ferrari are very, very strong right now as you have seen, they are racking up great mileage as well,” Hamilton said.

“It appears that they have a better package than they had last year, which means it is going to be even more of a challenge for us this year.”

Bottas spoke a little more firmly about how impressive Ferrari had been: “They do seem very strong. No matter which kind of fuel load or engine modes they’re running, whatever you try to correct that for, in any case, they are quick. Short runs and long runs.

“I think we feel at this point they might be a bit ahead, but obviously it’s impossible to make detailed calculations. It is very early days.”

In the red camp, Charles Leclerc echoed Bottas’ thoughts on it being hard to make any firm deductions this early on in the testing programme, believing Ferrari was yet to see what its rivals could truly do.

“The performance has no [meaning] for now, because it remains testing and they are probably not pushing, and we are not either,” said Leclerc.

“We don’t know how much the others are sandbagging, so we’ll see at the first race. I think the main importance for these tests are to do the programme of the day, and that is what we are doing, so we are happy.”

The happiness within Ferrari has been clear in Barcelona, with a definite shift in mood being felt in all areas of the team. Vettel came out with some buoyant comments on Monday, saying it was “close to perfection” as starts to pre-season go, comments that will boost the Tifosi eager to see the decade-long title drought end this year. 

As teams began to turn in quicker lap times towards the end of the test, the headline pace from Ferrari faded away. Renault ultimately ended the test fastest via Nico Hulkenberg ahead of Toro Rosso’s Alexander Albon, both of whom completed quick efforts on the softest tyre compound (C5) available in Barcelona.

But the mileage counts show just how successful the opening test was for Ferrari and Mercedes. Mercedes managed more laps than any other team, finishing on 610. Ferrari ended on 598 laps, over 90 clear of the next-best team, Alfa Romeo.

Spending some of today trackside offered a bit more of a picture (even if it is still missing a number of pieces as the teams continue to dial in their cars). The Ferrari SF90 looked on rails coming through the final sector, with Leclerc able to carry plenty of speed through the downhill Turn 14 before getting the car pointed through the chicane, and then firing it quickly into the final corner. The Mercedes looked very planted as well, but perhaps lacked the aggression of the Ferrari through this portion of the track.

The third front-running team, Red Bull, had a largely positive test, even if the numbers are not as impressive as those coming out of Mercedes and Ferrari. Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly racked up a combined total of 475 laps, giving Honda a combined total of 957 for the test – more than both Mercedes and Renault managed. A solid start indeed.

“Overall, the overall feeling for the car is really good even if it doesn’t show it on the lap times,” said Gasly after completing his running on Thursday.

“We are testing and we know what we’re doing so I’m pretty happy, and there are a lot more tests coming next week.”

Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko was a little less cautious in his assessment of how the team’s test had gone.

“If I talk about Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso, we have had a very good time and the engine is reliable,” he said, before declaring: “I would say we have never had such a good preparation for this season with both teams.” A bold claim in-keeping with the blanket positivity that has come out about the new Red Bull-Honda partnership thus far…

Marko was also impressed by what he had seen from Ferrari so far in testing: “Ferrari at the moment is the fastest car and behind that is Red Bull and Mercedes, so let’s see what we can do in Melbourne.

“But we are quite optimistic that this year we can win races from our own strength not only if others have trouble or at special circuits like Monte Carlo.” (Again, blanket positivity, digging at Renault…)

By being quick out of the blocks in pre-season testing, Ferrari has ended up with a target on its back early on in 2019. Mercedes and Red Bull’s start to the 2019 running has been more understated, but both will know where they need to pick things up next week as the countdown to Australia continues.

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