Formula One’s top drivers are fighting fit, despite some bruises, after two weeks of testing as they head towards a bid to set new all-time speed records at the season-opening 2017 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
The faster ‘monster’ cars and 'fatter' tyres delivered on performance during two tests at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, which ended on Friday with Ferrari on top and the rest in breathless pursuit.
Veteran Finn Kimi Raikkonen set the pace for Ferrari ahead of Dutchman Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing, the ‘iceman’s’ best lap the fastest of the two tests and a clear marker that the Italian team are back in business for 2017.
While three-time champion Lewis Hamilton battled in pursuit and wound up fifth quickest for champions Mercedes, it was the sheer speed of the new era machines and the punishing demands they make on the drivers that was most striking.
Raikkonen’s best lap of 1:18.634 seconds was nearly four-tenths faster than the previous fastest lap set by his team-mate four-time champion, German, Sebastian Vettel.
"These are the hardest cars I have ever driven," said Hamilton. "My guess is that in the next couple of months we will see transformation in peoples' neck sizes and their physical presence. It is that tough for everyone!”
His former team-mate retired 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg visited Spain to take a look for himself and said he was amazed by the speed of the new ‘beasts’ that had turned the drivers into gladiators.
“"They look like proper monsters, I mean ‘wow’” said Rosberg. “With those cars, the drivers need to be gladiators out there. The cars are going to take them to the limit, physically and in every way.
“They are all feeling it and hurting from the physicality of the job, but that’s how it should be. They are on the limits so I expect it to be an amazing season. There could be races where someone will lose out on winning just because of the physical strain and being so knackered.”
“The cars are just fantastic, but they are such beasts!” added Hamilton. “They look fantastic and I am sure it is going to be great for the fans. It so much faster now in the corners that you really feel it on your body and on your neck… I’ve got bumps and bruises where I’ve never had them before…”
"It's so much faster in the corners. The force you feel on your body and on your neck is much higher," Hamilton said. "I've got bruises and bumps where I've never really had them before."
Two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso may have struggled with his McLaren Honda again – hitting out at the Japanese engine supplier during the second test as he and the team’s mounting frustration boiled over – but he was quick to praise the new breed of cars.
"I apologise to the fans for the last five or six years that they saw horrible cars," he said, adding that the new cars allow drivers "to express your driving style" and not have to hold back as they did before in order to save tyres.
Hamilton’s new Mercedes team-mate Finn Valtteri Bottas was quickest in the first four days of testing and made his mark, winding up fourth ahead of Hamilton on the final day.
He admitted that like all the drivers he had gone into an intensified training routine to cope with the challenge of driving the new cars.
"I modified my training regime to fit to the requirements of the new car and its G-forces," Bottas said. "And it worked well, as I felt super in the car right away, but it has been very hard work.”
Spare a thought, too, for his former team-mate at Williams Brazilian Felipe Massa who retired last year but has been lured out of retirement, aged 35, to fill the gap following the Finn’s switch to Mercedes.
“I knew what to expect so I took a new physical trainer and began to train very hard every day,” he said. “I’m training more than ever before and it is a big challenge and a big task for me.’
His former team Ferrari may have set the pace but shrewd judges have pointed out that testing can be very misleading, especially with a new formula being introduced.
"The others look very quick and it looks like we have a good battle on our hands," said Hamilton. "Ferrari have done a fantastic job and I think there's more to come from them. Their pace has really been spectacular.
"I don't know if Red Bull have brought their upgrade package here but normally they bring it to the first race. They're definitely still up there. I expect us to be having a real serious battle with both these teams."
Fastest times, day four, final pre-season test
- Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:18.634 **
- Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull 1:19.438 **
- Carlos Sainz (Spa) Toro Rosso 1:19.837 ***
- Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes 1:19.845 **
- Lewis Hamilton (GB) Mercedes 1:19.850 ***
- Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Renault 1:19.885 ***
- Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India 1:20.116 ***
- Jolyon Palmer (GB) Renault 1:20.205 ***
- Lance Stroll (Can) Williams 1:20.335 *
- Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas 1:21.110 ***
- Fernando Alonso (Spa) McLaren 1:21.389 ***
- Marcus Ericsson (Swe) Sauber 1:21.670 **
- Pascal Wehrlein (Ger) Sauber 1:23.527 *
*** = ultra-soft tyre; ** = super-soft; * = soft