FEBRUARY 26, 1996

Hakkinen fastest at Estoril

THE two weeks of testing at Estoril came to a close last night with Mika Hakkinen having set the fastest time of 1m19.65s in his McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 last Thursday.

THE two weeks of testing at Estoril came to a close last night with Mika Hakkinen having set the fastest time of 1m19.65s in his McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 last Thursday.

Times came down slowly throughout the week as the track conditions improved with more rubber being laid, but the significance of the times is questionable as none of the teams were admitting to the spec they were running.

Although Hakkinen's performance is noteworthy, looking at the test as a whole, it is clear that the Williams-Renault FW18 has been consistently quick and reliable. Damon Hill was fastest on five of the seven days on which he tested. When Hakkinen set his fastest time on Thursday, Hill had finished his testing and Williams had sent Damon's car back to England. The general consensus in Portugal, therefore, was that the Williams team leader could probably have got into the high 1m18s had he been running in qualifying trim. The time sheets, however, show that Damon's best time was only a 1m20.95s.

The most impressive thing about the Williams, however, was its reliability, with Hill completing 950 miles in his seven days. Jacques Villeneuve - who was quickest on Friday with a 1m19.85s - notched up 650 miles in his five days. The Williams team packed up on Friday evening and headed home to England. The third car is now being completed and all three will be shaken-down at Brands Hatch on Thursday prior to being freighted out to Australia on Friday morning.

McLaren's fastest time will have come as a big boost to the team, but there remain question marks about the race performance of the cars. Hakkinen did not do any long distance running, completing only around 100 miles a day, normally in short bursts, in his five days of testing. There have also been one or two engine problems with the new Mercedes V10. The car, however, appears to be fundamentally good and with McLaren's resources should become increasingly competitive as the season progresses.

David Coulthard did very little running before the weekend. Initially he had problems with his seat fitting and it was decided that he should fly back to England to have a new one made. He returned on Thursday but the team decide to let Hakkinen finish a particular test which had been delayed the previous day because of mechanical trouble. David finally took over the McLaren (there was only one at the test) on Friday. On Saturday he did 58 laps but also suffered an engine failure. On Sunday Hakkinen was back in the car for the final day of the test.

Aside from Williams, the most impressive work came from Jordan-Peugeot, with Rubens Barrichello fastest on two days of the test (although Hill did not run on the first of these), and Martin Brundle quickest on Monday. The team was in action for eight days - its longest ever test session - and between them the drivers completed a vast 2579 miles of running with Barrichello's best being a 1m19.93s. There were a few technical glitches along the way but otherwise the team was very satisfied that this year it has a really competitive package. Jordan will run a shakedown test for its three Melbourne chassis at Silverstone on Thursday.

Benetton packed up on Friday after a mammoth 14-day test - although the car proved to be rather troublesome and only 1500 miles of running was achieved in total, rather less than the team had hoped would be possible. The problems encountered have involved the rear suspension and a variety of new electronic systems the team is planning to use this year. Towards the end of the test, however, both Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi began setting more competitive times with the Austrian recording a 1m19.90s on Friday.

As an indication of Benetton's lack of running, Ligier completed 1700 miles of testing in just four days without any major dramas - although Pedro Diniz remains rather slow. The team - which will shake down its three race cars at Magny-Cours on Thursday - is confident that it has a sensible race pace and a reliable package. Olivier Panis's best lap was a 1m21.74s.

Tyrrell did only three days of testing last week with two cars, running 675 miles, working on set-up, reliability and to see how the 024 compared to the opposition. The result was very promising for Salo, who recorded a best of 1m20.46s without pushing to the limit. Katayama was unable to match the Finn's impressive lap times.

Arrows did three days of running with Jos Verstappen and Riccardo Rosset, the Dutchman setting a best of 1m21.92s.

It is worth noting that in the past some teams have produced rather better testing times than are seen later in the season. Ferrari has often been accused of this, while Tyrrell and Jordan were both guilty last year. In 1994 the McLaren-Peugeot MP4/9 was more than second faster than its opposition in a pre-season test at Barcelona - but was disappointing for the rest of the year.