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McLaren in control in Barcelona

McLAREN launched its new MP4/14 last Monday in Barcelona and by the end of four days of testing the car was setting the pace with World Champion Mika Hakkinen lapping the Circuit de Catalunya in 1m21.141s. This was four-tenths faster than his nearest challenger. More impressive, however, is the fact that despite the best efforts of the FIA to slow the cars with extra grooves in the Bridgestone tires, Hakkinen's lap time is seven-tenths faster than his first runs with the MP4/13 at this time last year.

According to the team the new MP4/14 is a very different car to the MP4/13 with less than 10% of the parts carried over from the MP4/14. "It is an evolution," says technical director Adrian Newey, "but there is a lot of new thinking." The team refused to give details about the new ideas and team boss Ron Dennis admitted that "we don't want the opposition to know what we have up our sleeves".

Newey explained that his aim with the new car was to regain grip lost by changes in the tire regulations by finding more downforce. The engine is also new. It is lighter and lower than the 1998 version and offers improved driveability, an important factor with reduced grip. The engine has been running on the dynos since the start of November.

The two McLaren drivers ran on all four days of the test with Coulthard using the new car for the first two days while Hakkinen was at the wheel of one of the old MP4/13s. The pair then switched over for the last two days of the test. The Finn completed 83 laps in the old car and then 66 with the MP4/14 while Coulthard, third fastest of the week with a lap of 1m21.562s, did 66 laps in the new car - there were some teething troubles on the first day - and 144 in the 1998 car.

Although the team was not keen to admit it, the intention is to keep the MP4/13 development program going for the next few weeks just in case there is a problem with the new car. In this way the risks inherent in a virtually new car will be minimized.

There is no such hedging of bets going on at Benetton. The team did not test for much of the winter, throwing all its eggs into the B199 basket, and in an effort to catch up the team had a pair of 1999 cars for Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz. The Austrian ended up the quicker of the two, having completed a total of nearly 200 laps, setting the second fastest time of the test with a 1m21.560s. Fisichella did only 118 because of engine and gearbox troubles. According to the team his best lap was a 1m21.899s.

Sauber also had a couple of 1999 cars on hand from Tuesday to Thursday and Jean Alesi ended up setting the fourth fastest time of the test with a 1m22.214s on the final day. It should be pointed out that the track was clearly faster by then and other teams might have done better had they stayed. Jean completed a total of 120 laps while Pedro Diniz did 140 with the brand new second chassis, recording a best lap of 1m22.925s.

Jordan appeared for three days with Damon Hill running the new 199 chassis on the first two days while Heinz-Harald Frentzen tested an older 198 chassis. On the final day Heinz-Harald ran with the new car and set the fastest Jordan lap of the test - 1m22.397s - after 76 laps in the new car. He also did 150 laps in the older car. Hill completed 100 laps with a best lap time of 1m22.512s.

The experimental Honda F1 car was in action on all four days with Jos Verstappen showing that the car is not only fast but also reliable. He completed 221 laps in the course of the four days with a best of 1m22.427s.

Probably the biggest surprise of the week was the performance of the new Minardi with a complete F1 novice - Marc Gene - at the wheel. For the first two days the Spaniard took it easy and then on the third day he went for a time and came away with a lap of 1m22.825s. The team then headed home to Faenza delighted that new car was not only quick but also reliable, Gene having completed a total of 112 laps.

Prost Grand Prix had just one AP02 for three days and Olivier Panis ran the car for the first two days. With transmission and hydraulic problems he managed only 60 laps, although he was able to set a lap time of 1m22.991s. Jarno Trulli took over on the last day of the test and completed 46 laps with a best of 1m23.411s. He was forced to stop early because of engine problems.

The Stewart team made quite an impression early in the test with Johnny Herbert setting the second fastest time on the second day. This looked good but three engine failures in the same period left the team unwilling to continue for fear that there might not be enough Ford V10s left for the Australian GP. While the new engine is certainly quick it needs to be made more reliable. Despite the problems Herbert completed 120 laps while Rubens Barrichello managed 45. Herbert's best was a 1m23.354s while Barrichello had to make do with a 1m24.535s.

Arrows ran one old car and revealed the 1999 version of the car for the first time. Mika Salo lost a lot of time sorting out teething problems. This was then taken over by Pedro de la Rosa and ultimately by Tora Takagi and it was the Japanese driver who ended up with the fastest time of the three drivers with a best lap of 1m23.326s after just 35 laps. De la Rosa completed a total of 115 laps in with a best of 1m23.596s while Salo completed only 70 laps with a best lap of 1m23.919s.

McLaren and Benetton stayed on in Barcelona and were joined on Saturday by Ferrari. Coulthard ended the day fastest with a best of 1m21.93s after 73 laps. Fisichella did the same number of laps but managed only a 1m23.42s while Michael Schumacher gave the Ferrari F399 its first real test, completing 68 laps with a best time of 1m22.29s.

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