This year's World Series by Renault rookie crop again demonstrated that they will be in contention for championship honours after massing at the top of the timesheets on the opening day of testing in Jerez.
Although second year driver Sten Pentus ultimately took fastest time in the morning session for Fortec Motorsport, the afternoon was dominated by Daniel Zampieri (Pons Racing), Jean-Eric Vergne (SG Formula) and Nelson Panciatici (Junior Lotus Racing).
The Jerez sunshine - welcomed by the locals after the persistent rain that drowned F1 testing last month - persuaded drivers to take to the track early, with Greg Mansell (Comtec Racing) the first to top the timing charts. However, with several drivers opting to start out with fresh rubber, it wasn't long before he was usurped, with Victor Garcia (KMP Racing) lapping in 1min 31.033secs.
The Spaniard was replaced in turn by Julian Leal (International Draco Racing), before Zampieri, fresh from his selection by the Ferrari Driver Academy, took the provisional best time at 1min 30.613secs.
Everyone stepped up the pace during the last hour of the morning, with Pentus getting himself a little limelight by lowering the benchmark to 1min 30.026secs, with Keisuke Kunimoto (Epsilon Euskadi), Vergne, Nathanael Berthon (International Draco Racing) and Garcia lining up behind him.
“Up to now, I've finished all the sessions at the top of the timing chart, and that's encouraging," Vergne commented, "We're still exploring many settings on my car and, little by little, we're getting good results. We know that the performance is there, so our next goal is to work on the whole duration of a race.”
The afternoon session started off decidedly more low key, with most drivers practicing long runs and pit-stops. Some also ran in the new 'light aerodynamic' configuration, as they will be required to do in the opening event of each race weekend this season.
Jan Charouz (P1 Motorsport) held first place for most of the session with a lap of 1min 30.809secs, before Stefano Coletti (Comtec Racing), despite a dose of the flu, initiated the wave of quick laps after fitting new tyres. However, it was Zampieri who was first to drop below the 1min 30secs mark, clocking a 1min 29.840secs effort lap that left him out in front as the chequered flag fell.
“We were on the pace in Barcelona, but a technical problem stopped me putting in a good time," the Italian claimed, "Today, we worked out a good set-up, and that meant we could confirm our potential. It's a good way to start my collaboration with the Ferrari Driver Academy. I've still got a lot to learn, but I'm 200 per cent motivated!”
There were a few notable changes up and down the pit-lane, although not all will be permanent heading into the season. With Jake Rosenzweig racing in the GP2 Asia finale in Bahrain, Carlin drafted in F3 runner Alexander Sims to take over his seat, but the American driver will return for the next round of testing, at Motorland Aragon.
Other changes saw William Buller joining Fortec and Sergio Canamasas in at ISR, while a hand injury picked up in Barcelona meant Albert Costa (Epsilon Euskadi) had to pull out after only a few laps. The 2009 Eurocup Formula Renault champion reported feeling some pain and preferred not to take any risks with the injury. Daniel Ricciardo (Tech 1 Racing) was also carrying a hand injury, this time from a cycling accident, and preferred to throw in the towel after a single lap. The Australian will be replaced for the two days by 2008 WSbR runner-up Julien Jousse as regular team-mate Brendon Hartley is on F1 reserve duty with Red Bull Racing in Bahrain.
Testing continues for a second day on Sunday [14 March].