After a winter disrupted by an injury to his right hand, Tech 1 Racing's Daniel Ricciardo proved he was back in good shape in time for the start of the World Series by Renault season by topping the pre-weekend test at Motorland Aragon.
In the absence of regular pacesetter Jean-Eric Vergne, whose team has withdrawn, the Australian finished ahead of Mikhail Aleshin (Carlin), Sten Pentus (Fortec Motorsport) and Nathanael Berthon (International Draco Racing) as the 24 drivers competing in 2010 contested two 75-minute sessions in questionable conditions.
“This winter, what with my hand injury, plus the test sessions I missed through my role in F1 with the Red Bull F1 Team, I did less driving than the others," Ricciardo admitted, "So today I really wanted to gain in confidence. I didn't necessarily expect to do the fastest lap, so that's very good.”
With the sky threatening rain, the drivers took to the track with no delay, Pentus zooming to the top of the leaderboard with a lap of 1min 43.970secs. The Estonian led from Fortec team-mate Jon Lancaster for much of the early morning, before Berthon and Ricciardo upped their pace just past the mid-session mark. The Frenchman and Australian moved up to second and third respectively, just as the first spots of rain were felt. With the shower disrupting drivers' plans, Lancaster fell back to fourth, ahead of Keisuke Kunimoto (Epsilon Euskadi).
After the rain abated, all headed back on track to complete the set-up work begun during two days of collective testing at the same circuit a few weeks ago. Pentus' performance back then marked him out as one to watch, with an impressive lap of 1min 42.390secs, and he remained in the mix through to the end of the session. Ricciardo briefly stole back quickest lap time, but Pentus responded straight away and took command again with a 1min 43.615secs to sit atop the times as the chequered flag fell.
There was no phoney war at the start of the second session either. Berthon went straight to the top of the timing screens, but only for a few seconds, as Ricciardo took his turn and Pentus slipped in yet again. The Fortec Motorsport driver took over the lead in 1min 43.943secs, from Ricciardo and Julian Leal.
“We confirmed that we're in the right group today, like we did in the first round of collective testing here back a few weeks ago," Pentus commented, "Again, we've done lots more work with the Fortec Motorsport team this time. I'm approaching this season in a new frame of mind. We've got everything to go for.”
It was Aleshin who launched the final wave of flying laps of the day to take provisional first place, but Ricciardo hit straight back. Lapping in 1min 43.478secs, the Tech 1 Racing driver underlined his ambitions for the season, finishing the day ahead of his Russian rival Aleshin and the ever-present Pentus. Over the full two sessions, 18 cars fitted inside the same second, making qualifying on Saturday, when all cars - including new addition Esteban Guerrieri's ISR example - switch to the series' new light aero configuration, an interesting proposition
“We had a problem this morning and I really didn't feel too good in the car, but we changed everything and we found out where the problem was coming from and it worked fine this afternoon," Aleshin reported, "The season is going to be very competitive. The slightest error will be very costly.”