Jose Maria Lopez has emerged as potential title contender for this years GP2 Championship, after smashing the lap record during testing at the Paul Ricard circuit.

The Argentinean, who made his GP2 debut last year for DAMS last year on the way to ninth in the championship, has moved to Super Nova International for 2006 and managed to set the new benchmark on the '3D' layout of the French circuit, slipping under the time set by Lewis Hamilton on the first two-day test in February.

The time also came from the morning session and although three drivers managed to slip in between Lopez and Alexandre Premat, who was originally second place, in the afternoon, they remained some two tenths off him.

Nelson Piquet Jr made up the best of the rest, the Brazilian topping the afternoon timesheets but not doing enough to unsettle Lopez, while Lewis Hamilton maintained his position as one of title favourites by vaulting from eighth in the morning to third by the end of the day.

Fourth spot belonged to fellow rookie Andreas Zuber who is once again proving newcomers Trident Racing to be something of a potential race winner this year. He was also one of the biggest movers of the day, having set only the 14th best time in the morning, while his 63 laps were also the most extensive.

Newly crowned A1 Grand Prix champion Premat held steady in fifth place, just ahead of the leading DAMS car of Frank Perera, who also slipped from third to sixth in the afternoon.

Fourth and fifth fastest in the afternoon translates into an impressive seventh and eighth for Hiroki Yoshimoto in the BCN Competicion car and Campos Racing's Adrian Valles respectively. Nicolas Lapierre and Lucas di Grassi rounded out the top ten for Arden International and Durango.

Once again though, the competition was exceptionally close with less than two seconds covering the 26 cars that will line-up on the grid for the first time in Valencia. The competition will recommence ahead of the stand-alone opening round with two days of testing in Barcelona and two days in Valencia as part of the series' launch.

Leading times (17 March) - Paul Ricard:

Jose Maria Lopez Super Nova 1min 12.547secs 1min 13.528secs 27/16Nelson Piquet Jr Piquet 1min 12.986secs 1min 12.716secs 46/38Lewis Hamilton ART 1min 13.241secs 1min 12.736secs 35/34Andreas Zuber Trident 1min 13.587secs 1min 12.851secs 29/63Alexandre Premat ART 1min 12.834secs 1min 12.995secs 39/38Frank Perera DAMS 1min 12.838secs 1min 13.547secs 48/33Hiroki Yoshimoto BCN 1min 13.797secs 1min 12.888secs 17/26Adrian Valles Campos 1min 13.428secs 1min 12.988secs 31/35Nicolas Lapierre Arden 1min 13.108secs 1min 13.135secs 36/31Lucas di Grassi Durango 1min 13.409secs 1min 13.531 27/27Ernesto Viso iSport 1min 13.146secs 1min 14.170secs 31/30Michael Ammermuller Arden 1min 13.148secs 1min 13.491secs 36/25Fairuz Fauzy Super Nova 1min 13.437secs 1min 13.195secs 29/33Adam Carroll Racing Engineering 1min 13.615secs 1min 13.243secs 33/30Olivier Pla DPR Direxiv 1min 13.418secs 1min 13.540secs 43/42Alexandre Negrao Piquet 1min 13.462secs 1min 13.670secs 21/21Gianmaria Bruni Trident 1min 13.724secs 1min 13.530secs 24/54Timo Glock BCN 1min 13.605secs No Time 32/0Tristan Gommendy iSport 1min 13.615secs 1min 13.634secs 26/29Luca Filippi FMS 1min 13.634secs 1min 13.784secs 26/39Felix Porteiro Campos 1min 13.678secs No Time 47/0Clivio Piccione DPR Direxiv 1min 13.712secs 1min 13.898secs 45/49Sergio Hernandez Durango 1min 13.752secs 1min 13.834secs 35/35 Javier Villa Racing Engineering 1min 14.329secs 1min 13.885secs 24/24Jason Tahinci FMS 1min 14.089secs no time 47/0

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

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