The German world champion completed 112 laps on the Spanish asphalt in his Red Bull-Renault during the final testing session before the season gets under way in Australia on March 27.
Testing pace makes Sebastian Vettel favourite to retain Formula One driver's title
BARCELONA // Located at the end of a dusty road memorable for being as long as it is dull, sits the Bahrain International Circuit.
This weekend, save for the odd resident rocking up to redeem a refund from the ticket office, the track will probably be as quiet as it is in on a midsummer's afternoon.
No piercing engines, no superstar drivers, no spectators and, ultimately, no Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix.
Yesterday however, three thousand miles from Sakhir at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, life meandered along unchanged; thoughts of Bahrain banished until May 1, when the Kingdom must decide whether it is ready to return to the 2011 calendar.
Engineers scurried around the paddock, team principals digested data from pit wall screens and Sebastian Vettel, as he has grown accustomed to of late, drove faster than anybody else.
The German world champion completed 112 laps on the Spanish asphalt in his Red Bull-Renault during the final testing session before the season gets under way in Australia on March 27, almost double the number of laps he will need to do in May to complete the race distance when the Spanish Grand Prix takes place at the Circuit de Cataluyna.
Vettel clocked a fastest lap that was more than half a second quicker than second-placed Sebastien Buemi of Toro Rosso.
McLaren-Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton, one of five world championship winners competing this season, trailed by a full second after only managing 57 laps due to a problematic hydraulics system, while Felipe Massa of Ferrari was 1.4 seconds off the pace.
Vettel's display, coupled with that of his teammate Mark Webber's the previous afternoon, has strengthened the belief among the F1 fraternity that last year's manufacturers' champions remain the team to beat and that Vettel is perfectly positioned to become the first driver to retain the world championship since Fernando Alonso did so with Renault in 2006.
Yet while the 23-year-old, who won the title last November in Abu Dhabi, admits that things look "quite promising", he said he is "smart enough to know we all start the year with zero points".
"Obviously I know what we achieved last year, but in a way that doesn't really help us this year - it's a new challenge," Vettel said yesterday.
"Since February, when we started testing, we have had a lot to work on and problems to solve; there are a lot of new things on the car - new tyres - and that will keep us busy enough."
Vettel also added that a true picture of where each team stands will not become apparent until after the second race of the season, the Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang on Sunday, April 10.
"Melbourne is not a real racetrack," he said in reference to the Albert Park street circuit.
"So it could be in Malaysia or later when we see what's actually going on."
Meanwhile, Yas Marina Circuit, the home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, will be among the tracks to be analysed by a team of experts from the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) as the sport's governing body attempts to increase the possibility of overtaking in the sport following a number of processional races in 2010.
The venue of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was criticised by Jean Todt, the FIA president, saying it was "impossible" for cars to pass at last year's season-ending race.
"The Circuit Design Group is examining grand prix circuits to identify the possibility of increasing the opportunities for overtaking," read a statement from the FIA.
Meanwhile, Hispania Racing Team (HRT), confirmed they have signed Vitantonio Liuzzi to partner Narain Karthikeyan and fill the last remaining vacancy on the grid ahead of the season-opener in Melbourne.
The Italian, who raced last season with Force India, lost his place to Scotland's Paul di Resta earlier this year.
"I never lost hope to be in Formula One as I know I have the experience and the right attributes for a young and ambitious team," the 29-year-old said.
"I face a new challenge now and this excites me. I also face a lot of hard work in guiding Hispania Racing through the development of our new car."
HRT also confirmed they will unveil their new car tomorrow, giving the Spanish manufacturers only two days of on-track testing before departing for Australia.