Alexandre Premat set the quickest lap of the day to top the times on day one of testing at Paul Ricard, maintaining ART Grand Prix's run at the head of the GP2 Series field.

With temperatures nearing 15 degrees and not a hint of wind around the often exposed track, the second test of the pre-season opened place in near perfect conditions, allowing all 13 teams to get on with their programmes with the first race of the year getting ever closer. With only four days of track time left before the series convenes in Valencia for its launch and first round, there was a lot of activity as the track opened at 0900hrs.

Frenchman Premat set a lap of 1min 12.887secs in the #1 machine to narrowly miss out on pipping the quickest ever lap set on the French circuit's 3D track option in a GP2 car. That honour still rests with rookie team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who set a 1min 22.838secs effort in the afternoon session of the first day of the 2006 season, when the cars were introduced to slick tyres on 22 February.

Second quickest in the afternoon session was the morning's quickest driver, Jose Maria Lopez, who toured the circuit in a time which almost exactly mirrored his morning effort, underlining the consistent threat he and the Super Nova team will pose this year. The Argentine was joined in the top three by fellow RDD driver Lucas di Grassi, the Brazilian placing his Durango just 0.020secs behind the Super Nova car, once more belying his rookie status in GP2.

Nelson Piquet Jr continued the fine form being shown by his Piquet Sports team with the fourth quickest lap, after team-mate Alex Negrao surprised many by taking second spot to Lopez before lunch. World Series convert Adrian Valles gave the Campos Racing team a reason to smile with fifth place, edging Negrao back on the day's combined standings.

Hamilton was unable to repeat his previous frontrunning form as he ran his ART car to the seventh fastest time of the day, ahead of fellow rookie Franck Perera, who took seventh for DAMS. Ernesto Viso capped a solid day for iSport in ninth, with new team-mate Tristan Gommendy rounded out the top after enjoying a far more productive day of testing than he had managed last month.

The Frenchman's best effort, one of the few to be set in the morning session, was enough to keep second-year GP2 drivers Hiroki Yoshimoto and Nicolas Lapierre at bay, the Japanese driver also relying on his earlier session time after struggling in the afternoon. Lapierre proved equally matched in both sessions, emerging just ahead of Racing Engineering's Adam Carroll.

The morning times underlined just how close many expect this year's championship to be, with the top 18 drivers eventually covered by less than a second. Although things spread out a little after lunch, the top ten remained within 0.6secs, with 17th fastest Timo Glock the final man within a second of the Premat's ultimate pace.

Included in that group were Fairuz Fauzy, now more comfortable at Super Nova, Gianmaria Bruni, continuing newcomer Trident Racing's solid first season efforts and rookie Luca Filippi, who kept the rechristened FMS International squad in the hunt.

Testing continues for a second day tomorrow [Friday]

Leading times (16 March) - Paul Ricard:

Alex Premat ART 1m 13.743s 1m 12.887s 34/38Jose Maria Lopez Super Nova 1m 13.126s 1m 13.200s 29/30Lucas di Grassi Durango 1m 13.929s 1m 13.220s 24/41 Nelson Piquet Jr Piquet 1m 13.599s 1m 13.221s 34/43 Adrian Valles Campos 1m 14.047s 1m 13.260s 29/32 Alexandre Negrao Piquet 1m 13.266s 1m 14.647s 31/30 Lewis Hamilton ART 1m 13.405s 1m 13.272s 31/20 Franck Perera DAMS 1m 13.909s 1m 13.300s 24/37 Ernesto Viso iSport 1m 13.611s 1m 13.382s 38/26Tristan Gommendy iSport 1m 13.472 1m 13.907s 27/22Hiroki Yoshimoto BCN 1m 13.664s 1m 15.372s 17/16 Nicolas Lapierre Arden 1m 13.882s 1m 13.699s 33/12 Adam Carroll Racing Engineering 1m 14.106s 1m 13.759s 23/28 Luca Filippi FMS 1m 14.076s 1m 13.799s 28/38 Gianmaria Bruni Trident 1m 14.102s 1m 13.810s 20/33 Fairuz Fauzy Super Nova 1m 13.837s 1m 13.860s 33/34 Timo Glock BCN 1m 14.206s 1m 13.869s 21/40 Olivier Pla DPR Direxiv 1m 14.272s 1m 13.907s 33/34 Felix Porteiro Campos 1m 14.080s 1m 13.907s 23/37Andreas Zuber Trident 1m 13.964s 1m 15.451s 41/35 Michael Ammermuller Arden no time 1m 14.008s 0/20 Ferdinando Monfardini DAMS no time 1m 14.310s 4/31 Jason Tahinci FMS 1m 16.090s 1m 14.436s 37/35Clivio Piccione DPR Direxiv 1m 14.517s 1m 15.102s 30/12 Sergio Hernandez Durango 1m 14.803s 1m 14.599s 36/14 Javier Villa Racing Engineering 1m 15.164s 1m 15.054s 17/33

[Times displayed AM/PM, with fastest in bold; lap counts also shown AM/PM]


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