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Playing poker in Portugal

The Autodromo Fernanda Pires da Silva at Estoril, Portugal has reverberated to the sound of F1 engines all week as Formula 1 teams get ready for the fast-approaching new season.

The latest testing session began 10 days ago and is not expected to finish until the weekend, with teams coming and going as they wish.

The weather has not been very good, but on clear days there have been some interesting lap times set. Last autumn's pole position was taken by Gerhard Berger's Ferrari with a fastest qualifying lap of 1m20.608s. Despite all the expensive regulation changes and the reduction of engine capacity from 3.5-liters to 3-liters the lap times recorded so far are not much slower.

Damon Hill set a best lap of 1m21.77s on Thursday, while second fastest was Jordan-Peugeot driver Eddie Irvine who recorded a 1m22.29s on Tuesday. That day David Coulthard did a 1m23.37s; Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Sauber was clocked at 1m23.63s and Mika Hakkinen hustled his McLaren Mercedes to a 1m23.73s.

The only other man to break the 1m24s was Nigel Mansell on Friday. Mansell's first day of testing with McLaren was on Thursday and it was spoiled by a high-speed accident in the curling final corner. The McLaren glanced the barriers but damage was light and the car was wheeled back to the pits by mechanics and was running again in the afternoon.

McLaren and Williams are due to remain in Estoril until the end of this week. Jordan and Sauber packed up early last week by are expected back this week along with Ferrari, Benetton, Tyrrell and Forti, all of which arrived in Portugal over the weekend.

The question everyone is trying to answer is whether the testing times actually mean anything. No-one really knows which teams have been running with heavy fuel loads nor which tires have been used.

In the finest tradition of the sport the bullshit will not stop until the flag drops... in Brazil.

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