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Teams trade times in Estoril

THE top F1 teams met head to head last week at Estoril with their new cars: Williams, Benetton, McLaren, Jordan and Minardi all in action at the Portuguese circuit.

It has been one of the wettest winters in history at Estoril, so teams have not been able to accomplish as much as they had hoped. The first serious times from a 1996 car were set 10 days ago by Mika Salo in the new Tyrrell-Yamaha 024, the Finn recording an impressive 1m21.66s on a "green" track. Tyrrell sources said that even they were surprised with the speed of the new Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 - and reported that Salo had not even been in full qualifying trim. Other teams muttered that Tyrrell had posted the time by running an underweight car in an effort to attract sponsorship.

Williams presented the new FW18 at the track on Monday and then testing restarted on Tuesday, although heavy rain meant that only Damon Hill and McLaren's Alain Prost actually bothered to go out. Hill had an off in the new FW18 but without serious damage.

On Wednesday good weather returned and Williams, Benetton and McLaren were joined by Minardi and Jordan. Hill completed 40 laps with a best lap of 1m22.31s. Benetton - which has been struggling badly so far as it sorts it way through a lot of new systems - missed much of the day waiting for rear suspension parts to be delivered from England. Alesi finally went out in the late afternoon and completed 45 laps with a best of 1m22.73s. Berger did just three laps.

Prost continued his work for McLaren, recording a 1m23.22s before being stopped by transmission problems. Jordan's Rubens Barrichello was able to do just seven laps before he had a problem with the steering but set a promising 1m23.41, while Martin Brundle completed 71 laps with a best of 1m24.66s. Pedro Lamy gave the Minardi M195B its first runs, recording a 1m24.67s.

On Thursday the weather was still good and Damon Hill managed 81 laps with a best of 1m21.64s - the first man to beat Salo's time of the previous week - Berger managed 28 laps with a best of 1m22.24s and Alesi did 20 laps to record 1m22.40s. Mika Hakkinen had his first runs in the MP4/11, lapping 28 times before an engine failure left him out on the track. His best lap was a promising 1m22.55s. Barrichello continued Jordan's long distance testing with 72 laps and a best of 1m22.59s, while Brundle did 42 laps to record a 1m23.02s. Lamy shaved a few tenths off his Wednesday time with a best of 1m24.58s.

The track was faster still on Friday as more rubber had been laid, and so the times began to tumble. Williams did not run as the team was involved in a worldwide satellite news conference to launch the new car. Jordan ended up as the stars of the show with Barrichello setting the fastest time of the day, completing 40 laps and recording a best of 1m21.47s. Hakkinen impressed with a 1m21.50s and Alesi finally broke the 1m22s barrier with a lap of 1m21.75s. Brundle continued to improve his times with a 1m22.12s, while Coulthard had a run in the MP4/11 to record a 1m22.74s straight out of the box. Lamy improved again taking the Minardi down to 1m23.43s, while Berger did only a few laps to record a 1m23.71s. McLaren then headed off to England but planned to return today with two cars. The other teams continued on Saturday although the track was slower and there was not much running. Hill did 47 laps and set a best of 1m21.67s, beating Alesi's 1m21.98s. Lamy improved the Minardi again to record a 1m23.24s, while Berger, Barrichello and Brundle all recorded slower times than previously. This week the teams will be joined by Ferrari, Ligier, Arrows and Tyrrell.

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