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Vergne stars in first winter test

30 October 2009

Filip Salaquarda completed the third and final day of group testing at Motorland Aragon by leading a large World Series by Renault contingent, but the talking point of the week was the form of rookie Jean-Eìric Vergne, who defied his lack of experience to remain the best performer of this week.

Having been given his first taste of a World Series car during day one's session for national Renault champions and other invited runners, Vergne returned to blow away the track record by finishing day two at the top of the charts, ahead of Mofaz Fortec Motorsport drivers Greg Mansell and Jon Lancaster.

Early morning fog delayed the start by an hour, before Mansell emerged to set the pace with his new team, defying a slightly damp surface to swap times with Antonio Felix da Costa, driving with Tech 1 Racing. The pair took several turns at the top of the times, although Lancaster was determined not to be left out.

As track conditions improved, times were soon being bettered lap after lap, with reigning Macau GP champion Keisuke Kunimoto (Epsilon Euskadi) showing a turn of speed and hogging first place for several minutes before Mansell muscled his way back to the top. Only then did Vergne decide that his time had come, taking fresh tyres and top spot with a lap of 1min 43.833secs, before going quicker still at the end of the session with a lap of 1min 43.366secs to remain ahead of Mansell, Kunimoto and Lancaster.

Much of the afternoon was punctuated by fierce competition between Lancaster and another impressive newcomer, Adrian Quaife-Hobbs, the two British drivers swapping first place between them. Just behind, and clocking times before new rubber was fitted, da Costa and Vergne underlined their previous good form, while Steìphane Richelmi (Draco) and Walter Grubmuler (P1 Motorsport) emerged towards the end.

Typically, drivers waited for the last half-hour to to fit new tyres, and again it was Vergne who kept upping the pace. A 1min 43.230secs lap beat his own circuit record, and the Frenchman finished the day ahead of Mansell and Lancaster, with Quaife-Hobbs and Kunimoto rounding up the top five.

“We managed a very good time this morning, with fresh tyres, and then put newer tyres on later and went still better," Vergne commented, "We'd not changed anything on the car this afternoon, because the basic set-up was very effective, but, despite the traffic, I managed to get a quicker lap in. Physically, it really is more demanding than the two-litre Formula Renault car, and I'm very happy for the team. It shows the quality of their car and, for sure, I can't wait for next season!”

A mix of experienced drivers getting acquainted with new teams - such as Anton Nebilitskiy with Tech 1 Racing, Mansell and Lancaster with Mofaz Fortec or Salaquarda with RC Motorsport - and newcomers to the WSbR ranks was the theme of the day. Adrian Campos Jr drove with Draco, while Basil Shaaban (Prema Powerteam), Sergey Afanasiev (Carlin Motorsport), Roberto Merhi (Carlin Motorsport) and Jan Charouz (RC Motorsport) were also among those in action.

“The two days testing with Mofaz Fortec have gone very well," Mansell reported, "We've been very consistent and the performance has always been there. We put the new tyres on a bit too soon, and it's a shame, as I'd have liked to finish with the best time - and it was within our grasp.”

The start of day three was also delayed by thick fog. and the green flag didn't come out until 12.30, leaving the drivers to run a single five-and-a-half hour session, which saw Brendon Hartley back on track, having been confirmed at Tech 1 alongside Daniel Ricciardo for next season. Despite the Australian's deal, however, he spent the day testing with the KMP Group / SG Formula team, while Merhi switched to Prema Powerteam, Daniil Move took a seat with Comtec Racing and Albert Costa made his WSbR debut with Epsilon Euskadi.

Visibility conditions continued to be a handicap, but GP2 refugee Nelson Panciatici took advantage of the conditions to make an early impact for Pons Racing, although the first really significant lap times were a while coming.

As soon as he took to the track, Vergne upped the pace, briefly taking control of the session with a time of 1min 44.170secs, before Federico Leo (Pons) and Salaquarda responded and moved to the top. After lapping in 1min 43.426secs, the Czech driver topped the pile for a long periodwhile Lancaster, back with Comtec, Leo and Kunimoto, now with Epsilon Euskadi, slotting in behind.

As the last hour approached, drivers began donning new rubber, and Panciatici was again the first to go on a charge, moving up to seventh place. Vergne and Leo followed suit, the Frenchman moving into fourth while Leìo remained third, despite improving his time.

When Vergne returned to the track with a new set of tyres, he shot to the top of the standings with a lap of 1min 43.186secs that beat his own record from the day before. Kunimoto also went on a charge, grabbing the fourth fastest time, but other final attempts didn't change the pecking order, leaving Vergne in first place, ahead of Salaquarda and Lancaster.

“I put in a good time in the early afternoon, with worn tyres, while the track was at its most effective, but that's when I should have fitted new tyres," Vergne revealed, before discussing his options for 2010, "It's the management of Red Bull Junior Team who will decide on my programme for 2010, and maybe these three days of testing will be important in the balance.”

In a twist, however, the Frenchman's two best laps were later cancelled for overtaking under a yellow flag, allowing Salaquarda to inherit top spot, ahead of Lancaster and Kunimoto, although Vergne still retained the the best performance of the week.

“We reached a good level of performance today," Salaquarda reported, "I drove my fastest time at the beginning of the afternoon, and after that we worked on a race simulation. This is very positive for next year. We are building up a new team from RC Motorsport, so I'll be here again next season.”

The test had opened with the top three drivers from the FRenault Eurocup, together with the winners of the different national championships, being invited for a day's running. The winners of British, Spanish, Italian and Japanese F3 championships were also invited, and it was Kevin Magnussen - son of sportscar ace Jan - who produced the best performance of the day.

“The first time you press the accelerator, you say to yourself ' okay, this is another world!'," the Dane revealed, "Everything is more effective – the braking, acceleration, road holding, grip... You need time to get used to it, but I felt comfortable pretty quickly. We've done some very good work with Pons Racing, so it was a very good day.”

Vergne and da Costa, respectively runner-up and third in the Eurocup were joined by national champions Nathanaël Berthon, Daniel Mancinelli, Nico Muller, Dean Smith, Jukka Honkavuori and the leader of the Chinese championship, Luis sa Silva. Third place man from the NEC series, Marco Sorensen, also appeared, running alongside F3 drivers Ricciardo, Celso Miguez, and Takuto Igushi.

With experienced WSbR runners joining the rookies in the afternoon, Mansell led for most of the session, ahead of Ricciardo, but the situation changed when the new rubber came out at the end of the session. da Costa seized his opportunity to stand out from the group, lapping in 1min 43.935secs to claimed the quickest time ahead of Mansell, Ricciardo, Smith and Berthon.

“I've not yet quite got all my bearings with this car, so I'm not totally up to speed yet, particularly in braking where I was often not on the ideal line," da Costa commented, "I'm still a long way short of the limit, but I'm very interested by the series. I just need to get the budget together!“


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