Sebastian Vettel was fastest in the morning as Formula One returned to action with preseason testing Monday, with the Ferrari driver finishing ahead of defending champion Lewis Hamilton in the first session of 2016. Hamilton was first out in the new Mercedes but it was Vettel who had the quickest time of 1 minute, 24.939 seconds at the Circuit de Barcelona. Hamilton was nearly half-a-second slower with 1:25.409, and Valtteri Bottas of Williams was third, more than a second behind Vettel. Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull finished fourth.
Seven other drivers tried out their cars on Monday, the first of four days of testing in Barcelona. Among them was Jenson Button, who is hoping to find a much-improved McLaren after dismal results in 2015. Hamilton’s teammate Nico Rosberg will drive on Tuesday, as will Button’s teammate Fernando Alonso.
Hamilton was the busiest driver in the morning session with 66 laps, 23 more than Bottas and 30 more than Vettel.
Newcomer Haas, the first American-led team in F1 since 1986, faced a mechanical issue in its first F1 run when the front wing of the car driven by Frenchman Romain Grosjean fell off on the main straight. Grosjean returned to the pits without further incidents.
The first day of tests — nearly three months after the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2015 — started on a damp track and under overcast skies, with most teams spending time running installation laps to check for possible problems.
“It’s just important to get a lot of mileage, to sign off all the reliability things, and to build a good understanding about your car and tires,” said Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg, who will start testing on Wednesday. “That’s the most important things in these early days.”
Mercedes has dominated the last two F1 seasons and — with no major regulation changes for 2016 — is expected to be the team to catch this year. The test sessions in Barcelona should indicate if any of its rivals have made significant gains — or if once again the fight will be for second place.
“Teams have not changed the concepts of their cars, so I expect the grid to stay quite similar to last year’s,” Force India driver Sergio Perez said. “But you never know, once you get to Melbourne everything changes so quickly, so it will be quite interesting to see where everyone is.”
The final test sessions for the 2016 season are scheduled for March 1-4, also in Barcelona. The first of 21 races is on March 20 in Australia.
Most teams had already launched their new cars online and through social media, but some made their official presentation to the media on the pit lane, with drivers and team members posing for photos in front of cars before Monday tests got underway. Among them were Haas and Renault, which took over financially strapped Lotus. Mercedes and Force India also introduced their cars at the track.
A few cars had already been on the track ahead of Monday’s test session, but only for promotional events pre-approved by FIA, the sport’s governing body. Mercedes was one of the teams to get an early feel for its new chassis.
Hamilton was the first car out on the track. The defending champion didn’t waste time trying out the new Mercedes that he will attempt to guide to a third consecutive championship this year.
McLaren and Red Bull are eager to get on track again after a disappointing season last year. Red Bull couldn’t manage better than a fourth-place finish in the constructors’ championship, while McLaren was second-to-last after switching to Honda engines. McLaren, which unveiled its new car on Sunday, is expected to show improvement compared to last year, although it’s unlikely to be enough to allow the team to start contending for podiums or victories, which could mean another frustrating season for two-time world champion Alonso and Button.
Red Bull has already warned that the team likely won’t peak until the second half of the season. “We put in a phenomenal effort through last year,” said Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monoghan. “Many skilled people put in a lot of dedicated hours, and we are judged relative to the front-running car. If that’s us, fantastic, if it’s not, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
‘Brexit’ not an issue: Bernie
Formula One would be unaffected by any British exit from the European Union, the sport’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone said on Monday in an interview in which he supported those seeking to leave. Eight of the 11 teams have factories in England, with Renault having their engine facility in France but the team headquarters in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency.
Ferrari and Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso are based in Italy while Sauber are Swiss. The new Haas team are U.S.-owned but have their European base in England. “I’ve said before that I don’t much like democracy. Nothing gets done,” Ecclestone, the 85-year-old Briton whose Formula One Management is based in central London, told the Daily Mail newspaper.
“I do quite like David Cameron. I didn’t think I would, but he has done what he thinks is best for Britain in the EU negotiations. I respect that, but I want us to leave Europe. It doesn’t make any difference to my business. It doesn’t make any difference to anyone here. I know what we give the EU, but not what it gives us back,” said Ecclestone.
Cameron has called a referendum on Britain’s European membership for June 23 after striking a deal with other EU leaders on Friday for the country to have a special status. The Prime Minister’s backing for EU membership has the support of the City of London, major companies, much of the Labour Party, major trade unions, international allies and Scottish nationalists.