Felipe Massa cemented his place at the top of the timesheets on the third day of action at the Jerez group test by blitzing the previous best times set by Jenson Button and Romain Grosjean.

While times set in testing are all relative, and mean very little in the bigger scheme of things, sitting in P1 at the end of the day still provides a degree of satisfaction, and Massa will reflect on a job well done after posting a 1min 17.879secs best to take four-tenths of Grosjean's Wednesday benchmark, and a full second of Button's mark, which the Brazilian had described as 'incredible' at the time.

Massa, who was the only driver in action to have driven on all three days until Paul di Resta made a cameo late in the afternoon, was a fixture at the top of the times, setting the early pace in the 1min 19s before banging in his improvement to tie down top spot for the rest of the session. He eventually wound up nine-tenths clear of Nico Rosberg and 1.2secs ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who completed the top three.

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In the first part of the day, Massa completed the work he had begun yesterday and, from mid-morning onwards, moved on to a comparison of the various compounds supplied by Pirelli. Despite a harmless spin soon after lunch, he made it through to the end the day, concentrating on long run tests.

"These were three very important days," Massa claimed, "They were especially useful in the sense of finding the right direction for the team to focus on when it come to the development work between now and the opening round in Australia. We had a lot of items to test and the car went well, it was not difficult to drive and it seemed to me to be quite stable and balanced.

"Today, we fitted the soft compound tyres for the first time and I went faster than I had expected. The quick lap, however, means nothing and while I'm pleased to have done a good time, that was not the priority: we must still concentrate on the car set-up and we will definitely be doing this during the next test in Barcelona. Several teams have very quick and well balanced cars and so I am one hundred percent keeping my feet on the ground."

Massa's pace, and the number of new faces, aside, the real story of the day was Mercedes found reliability at the third time of asking. After a combined total of 26 laps across the first two sessions, the German returned to the cockpit and racked up the highest tally of the week so far, reaching 148 tours by the time a late red flag curtailed track action for the day.

The German's workload saw him cover the equivalent of more than two race distances as he made up for lost time. The focus was, naturally, focused on reliability running, but he also evaluated a new front wing design this morning and ran with the new parts throughout the afternoon.

"I'm very happy with today and I think it was probably a personal record for me to do almost 150 laps," he reflected, "I've never been so well prepared physically as I am this season; I feel on top form and it was no problem to complete the programme. To drive the distance from Silverstone to Spa in one day with no problems whatsoever is also a fantastic achievement from the team. It really made up for the last two days and put a smile on everybody's face."

Massa and Rosberg had also led the way after the first couple of hours, and the third man in that equation popped back up to ensure a reprise at the end. Vettel also completed over one hundred laps - going one better than Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber's 101 from Wednesday - as he got his first taste of the new RB9. The triple world champion wasted no time in exploring its potential and reported that it had been good to get behind the wheel again after the winter break.

"So far, I think we can be pretty happy," he said. "Mark had a good couple of days to start with, [but] it was great to get back in the car, to get rid of the rust and to get back in the groove again.

"The first feeling is good and the car is working well. It's difficult to judge the speed but, in terms of reliability, it looks pretty good, [and] we accomplished what we set out to achieve - which was to put a lot of laps on the car.

"At this stage it's very difficult to judge anything else. It could be that there is a favourite after these three tests, but it could turn out to be completely different in Australia because it's a different track with different characteristics. In terms of the times, it's always nice to be on top, but if there's one phase of the year where it matters least, it's here."

The world champion had to depose Kimi Raikkonen from third spot in the closing stages, but his task was eased by the Finn not adding to his 40-lap tally in the last couple of hours due to a clutch problem which stranded him in the garage in the midst of the usual programme of system checks, temperature monitoring and aero evaluations.

"It was good to get behind the wheel of an F1 car again, and the E21 feels quite good so far, even if the balance isn't quite to my liking yet," Raikkonen reported, "That didn't stop us going through the programme we wanted to do which had a lot of aero runs in it. We know the car can go faster, we were just running through what we needed to achieve. It's a shame that we had a clutch issue at the end of the day, but that's why we come testing so we can find these problems and fix them."

Jean-Eric Vergne upheld Toro Rosso's strong start to the season with fifth spot, the Frenchman finding an improvement in pace late on to push Force India's James Rossiter back another spot.

After his brief appearance on Wednesday afternoon, Rossiter got an extended run in the VJM06, designed to help him equate his work in Force India's simulator with 'the real thing'. The Briton, who had not driven an F1 car since acting as a test driver for the Honda 'works' team, ran as high as third on the timesheets before slipping back and then handing the car back to di Resta for what proved to be an abortive late run.

"It has been four-and-a-half years since I last drove an F1 car but, with the simulator experience I've built up recently, it didn't take too long to get back up to speed," Rossiter reported, "The programme today has been very useful for getting a feel for the car as a reference for the simulator. The cars have changed quite a lot and it was the first time I've used KERS. It's important to know how the tyres behave and we've worked hard to try and understand them this week. That will help make the simulator model more representative as a way of exploiting the car's potential."

Rossiter's best effort left him ahead of fellow Briton Jenson Button, despite completing around half the number of laps. Button didn't post a time through the first couple of hours - in the company of both Rossiter and Raikkonen - but piled on the laps as the day wore on, eventually getting another 83 in the books.

As in previous days, Button's morning kicked off with further aero evaluation work, conducted over a number of shorter runs. The McLaren team then ran through a suite of larger mechanical changes in order to understand key changes in set-up, and these were fully evaluated over a series of longer runs throughout the afternoon.

The team also conducted a number of live pit-stops during the afternoon's running, but made a precautionary stop on the track during the session's dying minutes, thought to be for a loose wheel.

The next four places were filled by drivers with a combined total of 20 grands prix between them, as rookies Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton and Valtteri Bottas slotted in ahead of Charles Pic. Gutierrez, Bottas and Pic were all getting their first taste of action in 2013, while Chilton returned to the cockpit of the lone Marussia after his opening day run was ended by an accident.

Gutierrez emerged as the fastest of the quartet after clocking up an impressive 110 laps in the Sauber. The Mexican had had to watch as new team-mate Nico Hulkenberg spent the first two days working on the car, but was soon replicating the German's times.

Chilton's day ended with a late spurt that allowed him to move up into ninth spot overall, but a few difficulties with the on-board electronics gave rise to a slightly broken programme, so the early part of the race distance work was rather stilted as a result of time spent in the garage. Problems resolved, the afternoon saw Chilton complete the race distance work before heading into the performance programme that resulted in the youngster finding time in the MR02.

"I'm really pleased with how my second day in the car has gone and I'm happy to have been able to reveal a little more of the car's potential," he confirmed, "Obviously these are very early days for all of us, but there are some very positive signs and I'm excited about that."

Bottas, meanwhile, was in familiar surroundings, taking over the 2012-spec FW34 that he drove regularly last year from Pastor Maldonado. The Finn was also able to get good mileage under his belt, notching up 86 laps.

"It was my first day as an official race driver today and it's been a long wait," Bottas admitted, "Since the announcement last year, I've been looking forward to this day and it's great to finally get the season underway. Everything went as planned and we completed a lot of laps doing both aero and tyre work to gather some good data. It was a great start to 2013."

Pic, meanwhile, got his first taste of the new Caterham after taking over from rookie team-mate Giedo van der Garde, but was unable to move away from the foot of the times, in part due to a loss of track time during the morning, and was only saved from occupying last spot on the day by di Resta's short-lived return.

"It was very good to get back on track and, for my first day with the team, it's been pretty good," the Frenchman insisted, "We had a technical issue late in the morning session that stopped the car on track, but the team did a good job to fix it and give me enough time in the afternoon session to complete 57 laps in total.

"The important thing for the first day was starting to get used to the car, particularly working with KERS and my new team. "Tomorrow we'll keep working through a similar programme, as well as some aero tests, and just keep adding to the mileage."

di Resta, who share the final day of running with Force India hopeful Jules Bianchi, managed just seven laps after taking over from Rossiter, the team opting to pack up after discovering an exhaust problem in the closing stages.