Motor racing: Vettel smashes track record on penultimate day of testing

Motor Racing - F1 Formula One - Formula One Test Session - Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Montmelo, Spain - March 8, 2018 Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari during testing REUTERS/Albert Gea

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel signed off from Formula One's pre-season testing on Thursday with the fastest lap yet around Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya.

The next time the four-times world champion will get behind the wheel will be for first Friday practice at Melbourne's Albert Park on March 23.

"The times on these test days don’t mean much," said the German, playing down his time of one minute 17.182 seconds, set on the new hypersoft tires.

"The important thing is that the SF71H (car) has proved to be very strong, allowing us to run all day without any significant problems.

"We are still working on some things for the first race and it’s not really possible to make any predictions based on the performance of the other teams, because everyone is running a different program," he added.

That said, his time was more than a second quicker than anyone else and eclipsed the previous best, since the Barcelona circuit was reconfigured in 2007, of 1:18.047 set on Wednesday by Red Bull's Australian Daniel Ricciardo.

Neither Red Bull nor champions Mercedes were focusing on lap times, concentrating instead on race simulations, and Mercedes have felt no need to try out the hypersofts.

General expectations are for a tighter battle at the front this season, with Mercedes seen as being still ahead but not by much.

All the teams did more than 100 laps, with Vettel also completing a race simulation and doing 188 - the most of any driver and one more than Red Bull's Dutch youngster Max Verstappen.

The German, runner-up last season to Britain's Lewis Hamilton, now hands over to team mate Kimi Raikkonen for the final day.

Danish driver Kevin Magnussen was second fastest on supersoft tires with a time of 1:18.360 while France's Pierre Gasly was third on the timesheets in the Honda-powered Toro Rosso and completed an impressive 169 laps.

McLaren put two days of troubled running behind them with a solid 151 laps for Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne, who was sixth on the timesheets. Team mate Fernando Alonso takes over for the final day.

"Today was very productive and it gives us the confidence to go to Melbourne with a strong package," said Vandoorne.

Hamilton and team mate Valtteri Bottas shared the Mercedes, with the reigning champion completing 84 laps and the Finn adding 97 to the tally.

"Our week has been very productive so far. We got through everything we needed, reliability has been fantastic and the car feels great," said Hamilton.

"We have not been working on balance, but in terms of some of the issues we had last year, a lot of them appear to have been removed."

Red Bull said they were not "chasing lap times" because they already had the data they needed on the softest tire from Ricciardo on Wednesday.

"The focus for us today was on long runs and the feeling with the car was good," said Verstappen. "No problems with the car and I was happy with the pace... If it’s going to be good enough, we’ll have to wait and see."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond and Pritha Sarkar)