Most F1 teams are conducting pre-season testing at Valencia and, on Thursday, McLaren Mercedes set the pace.

Most F1 teams are conducting pre-season testing at Valencia and, on Thursday, McLaren Mercedes set the pace.

McLaren driver David Coulthard topped the timesheets, setting a fastest lap of 1:10,983 over 48 laps. The Woking-based team’s test driver, Alex Wurz, was third quickest, with German veteran Heinz-Harald Frentzen second quickest in a Sauber.

Frentzen, in the Ferrari-powered Sauber, was just one tenth of a second behind Coulthard, and Wurz two hundredths behind the German. The top eight were separated by less than a second - could this be an indication that the 2003 season will see closer competition than the Ferrari whitewash of last year?

Both Saubers suffered transmission problems… Nick Heidfeld was fifth fastest and continued work on the mechanical and aerodynamic set-up of his car.

Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher and test driver Luca Badoer were fourth, sixth and ninth quickest for the Scuderia. The Ferrari squad carried out an electronic and tyre test programme and racked up 198 laps between them.

Giancarlo Fisichella went seventh fastest in the Jordan Ford EJ13. The diminutive Italian tested engine mapping for Cosworth, evaluated brake materials, gearbox settings and the performance of his car’s Bridgestone rubber.

Former Sauber driver, Brazilian Felipe Massa, is reportedly one signature away from becoming Fisichella’s team-mate for the 2003 season. Massa’s manager, however, believes that the Silverstone based team is still talking to other drivers with a view to filling the last remaining seat in the series.

"In terms of negotiations, it has all been settled,” a spokesperson for Massa told the . “The only thing missing is for him to sign. We imagine Jordan are talking to other drivers. On our side everything is ready.”

Olivier Panis was eighth and Cristiano da Matta twelfth for Toyota. The pair completed Toyota's week of testing with more evaluation work on the TF103.

BAR’s Jacques Villeneuve and Jenson Button was tenth and thirteenth, and Antonio Pizzonia drove the sole Jaguar on track.

Dutchman Jos Verstappen made his return to F1 with Minardi in unsettled circumstances. His team, Minardi, is wrangling with Bridgestone over the supply of tyres for testing. For the past week the team had to take to the track with Avon F3000 slicks as Bridgestone was apparently unwilling to supply Minardi.

Minardi boss Paul Stoddart intends to make an official complaint to the FIA. According to the regulations of the ruling body, Bridgestone is obliged to supply half the teams in the competition with tyres. The non-compliance with Minardi's request appears to be centred on the manufacturer reportedly asking for an R21,5 million pre-payment from the team.

Unless an amicable agreement is reached between the Faenza-based team and Bridgestone, the cash-strapped Minardi team may run into potentially dire financial problems later in the season. The demise of another Formula One team might force the remaining F1 teams to run three cars each, F1 experts say.

Times from Thursday’s session at Valencia

1. D. Coulthard - McLaren-Mercedes MP4/17 - 1:10,977 - 48 laps

2. HH Frentzen - Sauber C22 - 1:11,109 - 43 laps

3. A. Wurz - McLaren-Mercedes MP4/17 - 1:11,123 - 66 laps

4. R. Barrichello - Ferrari F2002 - 1:11,308 - 96 laps

5. N. Heidfeld - Sauber C22 - 1:11,418 - 50 laps

6. M. Schumacher - Ferrari F2002 - 1:11,521 - 62 laps

7. G. Fisichella - Jordan-Ford EJ13 - 1:11,709 - 62 laps

8. O. Panis - Toyota TF103 - 1:11,931 - 63 laps

9. L. Badoer - Ferrari F2002 - 1:12,105 - 40 laps

10. J. Villeneuve - BAR-Honda 005 - 1:12,119 - 71 laps

11. A. Pizzonia - Jaguar R4 - 1:12,329 - 62 laps

12. J. Button - BAR-Honda 005 - 1:12,404 - 62 laps

13. C. Da Matta - Toyota TF103 - 1:12,414 - 77 laps

14. J. Verstappen - Minardi PS01 - 1:15,182 - 47 laps.

Original article from Car