Ferrari may have set the fastest lap of the preseason, but it was the team’s slower laps that caught the eye.
Sebastian Vettel, on day seven with a new set of ultrasoft tyres, was setting purple sectors — but as he exited the final corner, he lifted off the throttle.
The fastest time of the day was his, but even the untrained eye could see his car could’ve gone faster.
Teammate Kimi Räikkönen lowered the bar by a further 0.4 seconds the next day, to which the classically cool Finn replied, “If we want, we can go faster”.
But there was none of the Scuderia’s traditional boasting; instead there was only a restrained, quiet modesty.
Perhaps fresh in the mind of the team are last year’s proclamations by president Sergio Marchionne that Ferrari must win urgently — words that returned to bite hard when victories were not forthcoming thanks to strategic errors and poor car development.
“I think a lot new things last year didn’t really go the way we expected,” Vettel deadpanned in the pre-race press conference. “So I think for this year we’ve really focussed on ourselves and tried to do our job back at the factory.”
And, in the face of increasingly favourable review placing Ferrari a the head of the field, he played down his chances.
“Obviously Mercedes has been in very, very strong form over the last three years. I think it is very clear who is the favourite.”
Hamilton, grinning and cloaked in his de rigueur gold chain, took his turn to hit back in the rivalry charade.
“Sebastian has usually a lot more hype, and I can tell he’s kind of trying to keep a lid on it, but their pace was obviously great in testing.
“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment. I think they would definitely be the favourites.”
Just to be sure, Hamilton made the three-time championship-winning team the underdog.
“As far as I’m aware no team has won back-to-back through regulation changes, so that is our goal as a team — we’re here to win and we’re here to do something no-one else has done.”
It was polite and inoffensive banter between two modern giants of the sport whose relationship has benefited from competed in parallel championships for almost the entirety of their careers.
In 2008, the pair’s first full season together, Hamilton deposed Ferrari’s Felipe Massa to claim his first championship while Vettel performed strongly at a nonetheless mid-grid Toro Rosso.
Just one year later, in 2009, the opposite proved true. McLaren built a poor car that left Hamilton with just two victories while Vettel made a late challenge for the championship to finish runner-up.
But the subsequent four years were a whitewash.
Hamilton finished fourth in 2010, when he was in theoretical contention to the final race, but two more fourths and a fifth were all he could muster in 2011–13. Vettel, on the other hand, won four titles with relative ease.
The pendulum then swung back towards the Briton, who competed in three intra-team titles with teammate Nico Rosberg, winning championships in 2014 and 2015 and finishing a close second last season. Vettel, on the other hand, struggled in 2014 and 2016 with Red Bull Racing and Ferrari, and though 2015 brought three opportunistic wins, they translated into just third in the title race.
Two prodigious talents and two icons of the current generation of Formula One drivers, but two men who are yet to do true battle on the race track. Alongside Fernando Alonso’s poor career choices and this year’s absent German Grand Prix, the lack of real rivalry between the pair is one of sport’s great injustices.
“I’ve not had a lot of battles with Sebastian on track, so of course we’d love to have that,” Hamilton agreed. “You want to be racing against the best.
“The more of a fight you have, the more satisfying it is when you are victorious, so of course we are down for a challenge … that’s what I’ve prepared for.”
Ferrari has thrown everything in its cashed-up arsenal at undoing its 2016 decline, and the James Allison-based car that tested in Barcelona looked sure-footed and powerful by all accounts.
The Mercedes, meanwhile, looked just about as good as ever, the only concern being a dodgy crankshaft that is understood to have been rectified in time for this weekend’s race.
The stars, it would seem, are aligning. Ferrari has had the opportunity to learn from its mistakes in 2016. Mercedes has had its 2014 advantage clipped by the change in regulations.
Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are spoiling for a battle. Will 2017 finally deliver us the titanic duel of a generation?