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Teams play hide-and-seek with testing times

WITH the days ticking away before the start of the Formula 1 World Championship in Melbourne on March 12, the Formula 1 teams have been testing more than ever in an effort to be ready for the new season. Ferrari has been at Mugello where Michael Schumacher has been producing new lap records as he develops the Ferrari F1-2000. The German has been able to do a lot of laps in the new car and the team should go to Australia in a much better state of preparation than has been the case in recent years. In the course of the week Schumacher completed around 500 miles in the new car before handing it over to Rubens Barrichello who continued testing over the weekend.

Benetton has spent the last few days at Lurcy Levis doing aerodynamic verification testing with Giancarlo Fisichella and Oliver Gavin driving. The team is expected to move on to Jerez this week where they will be joined by Williams, British American Racing and Sauber.

The Circuit de Catalunya has been in constant use. After Pedro de la Rosa ended up fastest in the previous test at Barcelona with a lap of 1m20.23s in his Arrows, a new test session began on Thursday with Mika Hakkinen setting the pace in the new McLaren-Mercedes MP4/15 on the first day of running. He was shadowed by David Coulthard and on Friday it was the Scotsman who was fastest. Hakkinen's fastest lap of the test was a 1m21.51s after 220 laps while Coulthard completed 240 laps with a best of 1m22.07s. McLaren was not, however, going for fast laps concentrating on running long distances so the team is in a very confident mood.

Jordan has emerged in recent days as the nearest challenger to McLaren with both Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jarno Trulli lapping in the low 1m22s with heavy fuel loads. The German completed 100 laps during the first three days of the test, while Trulli completed 130 laps with a best of 1m22.65s. The Silverstone team has adopted a low-key profile this year and is avoiding doing any quick laps so as not to give too much away to rival teams as to its state of competitiveness this year.

On Saturday Marc Gene recorded a best lap of 1m22.10s in his Minardi but for most of the time there has been no sign that the car is anything special. Gene's new team mate Gastone Mazzacane completed 50 laps in the first three days of running, while Gene's total was 64 laps. Mazzacane's best time was a 1m23.645s. It is hard to imagine that a Minardi will be beating the new Jaguars but with no-one willing to say how much fuel is being run it is difficult to establish who is best-placed for the season ahead.

Jaguar has been working on reliability with Johnny Herbert completing 115 laps in the first three days of testing while Eddie Irvine had to make do with only 85. The two drivers set times which were close to one another in the mid-1m22s but were clearly not trying to set blisteringly quick laps, preferring to concentrate on reliability.

Also in action have been the Arrows and Prost teams but neither organization has been producing any fast times and it is clear that Arrows is now concentrating on reliability rather than headlines. Jos Verstappen's best during the week was a 1m23.64s after 44 laps while Pedro de la Rosa managed only nine laps on Saturday and Verstappen failed to do any flying laps.

Jean Alesi has been catching up for time lost so far and completed 65 laps in the course of his two days of running, setting a best time of 1m24.880s. Nick Heidfeld then took over the running and completed 34 laps with a best of 1m24.72s.

It should be remembered that Bridgestone is continuing to restrict the supply of tires to all but the top three teams - who are allowed more tires so they can help the Japanese company do development work. This helps to explain why McLaren and Jordan have been able to do a lot more laps than the others - and why many teams have not bothered to waste tires with qualifying runs.

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