Champ Car veteran Adrian Fernandez made his return to the cockpit last weekend at Laguna Seca following a three-month layoff recovering from a fractured vertebrae.

The 37 year-old Mexican, who also suffered hip and pelvis injuries during the 2002 season, finished the two-day open test eighth fastest of the 13 drivers to turn competitive laps in his first run with the new Fernandez Racing Lola-Ford package.

"I'm a little bit sore, but it was nice to be back in the race car after three months," said Fernandez, who fractured a vertebrae in his neck during the frightening multi-car pile-up at Surfers Paradise last October. "Everything went very smoothly, and the team is working very well together. It was a good two days."

Fernandez turned a total of 169 laps on the 2.238-mile road course, posting a best lap time of 70.631 seconds. It was his first run with the new Ford-Cosworth XFE - the spec engine that will power the entire field in the 2003 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford.

"The new package seems to be very good," added Fernandez. "The engine is different than what we are used to, but we are learning a lot. I think we are right there considering this is the first time I have been back in the car. I am still a little rusty, and I need to work more on regaining my strength because I haven't been able to strength-train due to the [fractured] vertebrae. Overall, I am happy. We are in striking distance and there is still some time to come from me."

Team Manager Gustavo del Campo was equally pleased with the course of events over the two-day outing and the team's progress.

"Adrian is in very good shape for being out of the car the past few months," said del Campo. "We were focusing on seven or eight lap runs, trying to be consistent and find a good balance. We weren't going for the fastest lap; we were only looking to put more mileage on the driver at this point.

"The car is very good. We didn't have any problems with the engine, the new Pi system, etc. The team is the same group of people as last season; only now [Race Engineer] David Watson knows he is in charge for the whole year. [Watson originally joined the team for the last three events of the 2002 season.] I think we are in very good shape and this was a very good start."

In overall results from CART's biggest pre-season test to date, defending CART Champion team Newman-Haas Racing picked up where they left off last year with Cristiano da Matta as Bruno Junqueira and the yet-to-be-signed Sebastien Bourdais dominated proceedings. Between them they led all but one of the on-track sessions with the young Frenchman setting fastest lap on Saturday before his more experienced Brazilian teammate set the best time of the weekend on Sunday afternoon at 69.172 seconds.

Knowing that he has almost 1.5 seconds to make up in order to get on terms with the boys from Newman-Haas, Fernandez is looking forward to the team's next outing -- CART's Spring Training - which begins with media activities in St. Petersburg in Florida on February 2nd and moves to Sebring International Raceway for on-track testing from February 4th-6th.

"The three days at Sebring are going to help me," said Fernandez. "It is one thing to work out in the gym, but it is nothing like driving a race car. This is the longest period that I have had without driving since I started racing 20-some years ago. I am not worried about it because it will come back. Our test at Laguna was good, and I was even surprised myself that I was pretty much right there because I am still getting back to 100 percent. I am looking forward to Sebring."