He may not have been in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car since before Christmas, but S?bastien Bourdais failed to let that hold him back as he celebrated his return to action by comfortably topping the testing times on day three of four at Jerez de la Frontera.

Building on the progress made by young rookie team-mate S?bastien Buemi over the first couple of days, the Frenchman completed 126 laps of the southern Spanish circuit in warm and sunny conditions, comparing Bridgestone's medium and soft compound tyres as well as looking at set-up and front suspension options on his Scuderia Toro Rosso, the only 2008 car present at the test.

The record-breaking former multiple Champ Car king also conducted an ongoing reliability validation of the Ferrari engine, which should complete its cycle on the final day, again with Bourdais at the wheel.

The 29-year-old ended up more than two seconds clear of second-placed Lewis Hamilton, the defending F1 World Champion concentrating on aero mapping and finding a good balance on the new McLaren-Mercedes MP4-24 in the morning running before settling into a series of long runs later on. The 24-year-old reported an extremely productive day, during which the hugely-successful Woking-based outfit was able to continue its work on its KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) programme.

"Today's test gave me the first opportunity to drive MP4-24 in warm, dry conditions," Hamilton remarked at the close of play, "and I'm very encouraged by what I felt. The car feels strong, very similar to last year's car in fact.

"It doesn't take long to get used to the new buttons in the cockpit (KERS & front wing flaps), but the real test for everyone now is to understand the slick tyres ahead of the first race in Melbourne next month."

A scant thousandth of a second behind the British star on the end-of-day timesheets was Sebastian Vettel for Red Bull Racing, with a long run early on countered by some bodywork damage that took the energy drinks-backed squad a couple of hours to fix.

After that, however, a very fruitful afternoon enabled the team to make up for lost time and get through its job list for the day, including aero testing and work on mechanical set-up. Mark Webber will take over for the final day on Friday.

Fourth-fastest, with 92 laps on the clock, was Williams' Kazuki Nakajima, who again looked at set-up optimisation work, tyre testing, reliability and systems checks, to the encouragement of technical director Sam Michael.

"Kazuki continued work on set-up items and completed some systems and cooling checks today," explained the softly-spoken Aussie. "We have some useful information which we will look into tonight in preparation for tomorrow's session. Nico Rosberg joins the team for the last day and will share pit-stop practice work with Kazuki in the morning, before taking over the FW31 for the final half day of testing in the afternoon."

Bringing up the rear of the order once more was Renault, as the former champions continue to battle poor pre-season pace with the new R29. Double title-winner Fernando Alonso was behind the wheel on day three, but despite getting through no fewer than 133 laps - more than any other driver - with the focus on long runs, evaluating various development items and further KERS acclimatisation, the Spaniard's best time was still the best part of half a second shy of his nearest rival.

"Today was all about getting mileage on the car," the 27-year-old reasoned, "especially with the new KERS system. It was my first full dry day in the car and so I was able to learn a lot. We completed lots of laps, which is encouraging, and now we will start working on the set-up of the car so that I can get more comfortable with it."

"As the car is so new, the main priority of this test is to add miles to it to get data and ensure we have a reliable package," added the R?gie's chief test engineer Christian Silk. "The first two days of the test were quite difficult for us, but today was better and the car ran well throughout the day. For tomorrow we will keep pushing on the mileage and learning all we can about the package."

To see the testing times in full, click here

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