In the four-hour morning session the world champion topped the mileage charts with 65 laps, effectively a race distance, ahead of Valterri Bottas (42), Vettel and Marcus Ericsson (36), and Carlos Sainz and Jenson Button (35).
Sheer speed is virtually meaningless at this early stage, because the F1 teams are more worried about development work. But after Ferrari and Mercedes, in terms of pace, came Williams, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and McLaren.
“The car feels very much the same as last year’s to be honest,” Hamilton told Sky Sports. “There are a few little bits here and there but otherwise it is generally the same. It is an evolution of last year’s car which is a positive.
“In the first day we have already done more than 60 laps which is very encouraging. Normally in the first day you always have problems here and there with the car stopping so fingers crossed that will continue.”
Before testing Hamilton and his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg had responded angrily to comments from the four-times champion Vettel, who had described their domination as “boring”.
Hamilton said: “That’s pretty funny because he had four years of it and I’ve only had two. Until I get to his level I won’t have bored them as much as he had.”
Rosberg said: “We are where we are because we are the best at the moment. It would be nice to be a bit more respectful of our achievements.”
Mercedes are the favourites to repeat their domination of the past two years and after only half an hour they had put in nine laps, more than twice as many as the next best Daniel Ricciardo and Sainz (both four).
It is the stronger teams who normally pound the circuit while the less confident look anxiously on; after two hours Hamilton had completed 28 laps while Jenson Button had done only one for McLaren.
When Button did set his first time of the day he moved into fifth place in the time sheets. McLaren had a slight problem with the throttle but by the end of the morning they looked a lot happier albeit that Button’s best time was 2.7sec slower than that of Vettel.
It was an obvious relief for Eric Boullier, the racing director of McLaren, who presided over a devastatingly disappointing testing period for the team here last year. The Honda engine was far off the pace and the team’s difficulties climaxed when Fernando Alonso crashed. There were even hints at the end of last year Alonso would not drive in 2016 unless given a more competitive car.
Boullier said: “Fernando’s OK. He’s happy. He has our numbers. OK, 35 laps is not the best but it is better than last year.”
The McLaren chief was still reluctant to go into details about the progress made by Honda during the winter. McLaren, even with improvements, still face a tough year.
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