Jose Maria Lopez set the pace as GP2 'winter' testing began in earnest at Paul Ricard, the Argentine getting a run with the ART Grand Prix team that had dominated the latter stages of the 2005 season.

Lopez was at the wheel of Nico Rosberg's championship-winning Dallara, and his best lap of 1min 16.047secs proved to be half a second quicker than that achieved by his nearest challenger, morning's pacesetter Nelson Piquet Jr.

The two series race winners were followed in third place by leading newcomer Andreas Zuber, who enjoyed an impressive first day with iSport International. The Austrian got the better of World Series by Renault rival, and series champion, Robert Kubica, although the Pole lined up fourth fastest for Durango despite only running for half of the opening day.

"It's a big difference from the car I drove this year in the World Series," Kubica revealed, "The difficult thing for me was the tyres, which I found very strange as you have only one lap on them. I was surprised how much grip they gave me on the first lap and, by lap two, I knew where I wanted to improve, but I had already lost the best of them. It is going to take some experience to learn."

On a day where few drivers who contested the 2005 campaign remained with their original teams, Hiroki Yoshimoto finished the afternoon in fifth spot for DPR, with World Series frontrunner Adrian Valles claimed sixth in the Japanese driver's former BCN chassis. Among those that did stay put, Nicolas Lapierre contributed to Arden International's seventh place, although the Frenchman was sharing the car with German FRenault sensation Michael Ammermuller, and Oliver Pla claimed ninth for DPR.

Between them, new British F3 champion Alvaro Parente took eighth for DAMS, while Hayanari Shimoda - who missed out on a Super Nova seat to Adam Carroll this year - returned with tenths spot in the second iSport car.

"I really enjoyed myself today," said Parente, who has been campaigning Portugal's A1 Grand Prix car in recent weeks, "The car is really quick - the quickest I've ever driven.

"It was my first time with grooved tyres too, which was very interesting. The car has a lot of grip, a lot of power, especially under braking, and it's a totally different style for me. You can brake really late, and the ground effect was really impressive. You could take so much speed into the corners. I can't wait to get back in the car tomorrow."

Piquet had headed the morning session, edging 2005 rival Ernesto Viso as he swapped back from Brazil's A1GP car to his regular Piquet Sports mount. Viso, meanwhile, exchanged his BCN Dallara from the regular season to try out a Coloni seat warmed by several drivers this season. The pair were split by just 0.036secs as both completed more than 40 laps of the French circuit. While Piquet was able to improve his pace after lunch, however, Viso swapped second fastest for second slowest after the interval, completing just eleven laps.

Pla claimed third best time in the early session, ahead of Parente, Zuber and Yoshimoto, while former Durango pilot Clivio Piccione turned up in the Arden car and clocked the seventh best lap of the session. The Monegasque found a miniscule improvement in the afternoon, but dropped back to 15th fastest.

"The brakes are very good, and my experience in the World Series certainly helped me with them," Zuber claimed, "The aerodynamics on the GP2 series car are very good, especially in the quick corners, and it's powerful too - more powerful than World Series!

"The grooved tyres have their own rules, too. With new tyres, you have one lap, a maximum of two, and then you're slow for ten laps because of the graining. Then you get the pace back, and then they get old. It's a big difference for me. You have to get it right first time, as Lopez did this afternoon."

F3 Euroseries racewinner, and BAR development driver, James Rossiter headed Lopez and Giorgio Mondini - who swapped DPR for Durango for day one of the test, in the morning top ten. The Briton found half a second after lunch, but that was good enough only for twelfth on the timesheets, while Mondini also improved but dropped back to 17th.

"It's been good fun today, and I've learned a lot," Rossiter reported, "The driving style you need for these cars is very different to anything I've driven before, so I spent most of the morning adapting to that.

"I didn't get the most out of the new tyres as you only get one flying lap on them. I found that challenging, but it's been a good day overall. I won't be testing tomorrow, but I've learned a lot about the driving style you need for the GP2 Series, especially in the long runs we ran today, and I definitely want to come back for more."

Among the other notable seat switches, Fairuz Fauzy had a run with Super Nova, while the new combinations included Tomas Kostka at ART, Antonio Garcia and Roldan Rodriguez at Campos Racing, Italian F3000 champion Luca Filippi getting his prize drive with Coloni and current Spanish F3 points leader Javier Villa at Racing Engineering.

"I've spent almost every race in the GP2 series paddock in 2005, so I'm really happy that I got to drive the car for the first time today," Villa, who races for Racing Engineering in F3, said, "It is a very impressive car - the power, the braking, everything, it's just a great car. Okay, my time maybe wasn't as close to the front as I would have liked - I was 1.4secs off - but I think that, with more testing and more experience, we can move forward.

"I may have only just turned 18 years old, but I found no physical problems at all. We made 104 laps, and the only thing I could say is that the back of my neck is a little bit sore from all the braking. But that's all. In the corners, it's great."

Leading performances - combined sessions:

Jose Maria Lopez ART Grand Prix 1:17.847 1:16.047 26/31 Nelson Piquet Jr Hitech Piquet Sports 1:17.139 1:16.616 47/22 Andreas Zuber iSport International 1:17.643 1:16.899 43/36 Robert Kubica Durango 1:16.937 0/39 Hiroki Yoshimoto DPR 1:17.667 1:17.045 36/42 Adrian Valles BCN Competicion 1:18.163 1:17.066 37/21 Nicolas Lapierre / Michael Ammermuller Arden International 1:18.127 1:17.132 40/40 Ernesto Viso Coloni Motorsport 1:17.175 1:18.175 42/11 Alvaro Parente DAMS 1:17.610 1:17.211 41/45 Olivier Pla DPR 1:17.314 1:17.299 32/37 Hayanari Shimoda iSport International 1:18.311 1:17.299 35/34 Tomas Kostka ART Grand Prix 1:18.777 1:17.358 27/26 James Rossiter DAMS 1:17.829 1:17.390 42/35 Javier Villa Racing Engineering 1:18.315 1:17.473 54/50 Alexandre Negrao Hitech Piquet Sports 1:18.649 1:17.530 42/28 Clivio Piccione Arden International 1:17.674 1:17.626 40/19 Fairuz Fauzy Super Nova International 1:19.197 1:17.740 26/26 Luca Filippi Coloni Motorsport 1:18.890 1:17.752 24/32 Giorgio Mondini Durango 1:18.029 1:17.791 41/25 Antonio Garcia Campos Racing 1:18.437 1:18.013 45/44 Roldan Rodriguez Campos Racing 1:19.290 1:18.432 52/53 Gianmaria Bruni Durango 1:18.817 10/0

[times in bold are best across two sessions, shown AM and PM; laps in each session also shown AM/PM]

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