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Testing time fast running out 07 Feb 2006

Pedro de la Rosa (ESP) McLaren Mercedes MP4/21. Formula One Testing, Barcelona, Spain, 23-27 January 2006. World ©  Capilitan/Sutton Jacques Villeneuve (CDN) BMW Sauber F1.06. Formula One Testing, Barcelona, Spain, 23-27 January 2006. World ©  Capilitan/Sutton Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R26. Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, 12 January 2006. World ©  Hartley/Sutton Jenson Button (GBR) Honda Racing RA106. Formula One Testing, Barcelona, Spain, 23-27 January 2006. World ©  Capilitan/Sutton Christijan Albers (NED) MF1 Toyota M16. Midland MF1 Racing Launch, Silverstone, England, 3 February 2006. World ©  Bumstead/Sutton

With the start of the season just over a month away, pressure is mounting on the teams to ensure their new machines are on the pace in time for the season opener in Bahrain. This week the testing action shifts to the Spanish circuit of Jerez, where we should get the best picture yet of the potential 2006 pecking order.

World champions Renault have looked arguably the most impressive team to date. They had their R26 on track early and it has been quick and reliable ever since. Crucially, race drivers Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella have both had plenty of time in the car and the two will be on track again this week for a four-day programme starting Wednesday.

Renault’s closest 2005 rivals McLaren have appeared far less convincing in their 2006 preparations. The reliability of Mercedes’ new V8 has looked questionable and the team have continued to test a V10 MP4-20 alongside the new MP4-21. They will have all four of their drivers at Jerez this week, as they too kick off a four-day test on Wednesday.

As always Ferrari have been conducting much of their testing in the solitary confines of Fiorano and Mugello. However, the appearance of the 248 F1 alongside its rivals at Valencia last week was enough to suggest a much stronger year in prospect for the Italian team after 2005’s disappointment. Indeed, Michael Schumacher cited them -along with Honda - as Renault’s closest current rivals. Ferrari test at Fiorano this week, with Schumacher and Felipe Massa shaking down the team’s second new chassis.

Toyota were the first to debut their 2006 machine and while the TF106 may not have been setting the timesheets alight, the Japanese squad are looking quietly confident, having spent much of their time adapting to their new Bridgestone tyres. The car will boast an all-new aero package for Bahrain and the team have already scheduled the introduction of a B-spec machine for round seven in Monaco. Toyota begin work at Jerez on Tuesday, with Jarno Trulli, Ralf Schumacher, Ricardo Zonta and Olivier Panis all due to test over three days.

Japanese rivals Honda are another team who could be vying for victories this year, if their recent form is anything to go by. The new RA106 only debuted on January 25, but the team had two chassis on track straightaway and they immediately proved quick and reliable. Add in their new driver pairing of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello and Honda are looking a force to be reckoned with. Their 2006 preparations resume at Jerez on Tuesday.

With the teams carrying out such varied programmes at testing, judging form is never easy and it gets even harder the further down the grid you go. Williams have so far conducted just one full test with their new Bridgestone-shod FW28, Nico Rosberg putting in some impressive times at Valencia. This week should prove the validity of those times, when the team move to Jerez with two FW28 chassis, plus Rosberg, Mark Webber and Alex Wurz.

Like Williams, BMW Sauber have to date been running an interim car alongside their 2006 machine. The new F1.06 has achieved some strong lap times in the hands of Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve, and the German-Swiss squad will commence a three-day Jerez programme on Wednesday.

Scuderia Toro Rosso have thus far restricted their testing to use of a 2005 Red Bull chassis, a situation that may continue this week when they spend two days at Jerez with Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed. A test debut date for the new car has not been confirmed, though its official launch will take place in Bahrain on the Thursday prior to the Grand Prix.

Midland’s new M16 begins its first multi-team test at Jerez on Tuesday, following the car’s launch and shake down at Silverstone last week. The Russian team, who have a plethora of test drivers to draw on along with racers Christijan Albers and Tiago Monteiro, are due to run for four days.

Aside from Ferrari, that leaves just Red Bull and Super Aguri missing from this week’s Jerez line-up. The former were among the first to get their 2006 machine on track, and although hampered by engine cooling issues - which the team believe they are now on top of - the RB2 has shown some convincing speed. The team have a two-day test planned at Silverstone this week.

As for Super Aguri, we will have to wait until February 21 to find out how their SA05 car stacks up against its rivals, when the 2002 Arrows-based machine begins a three-day test in Barcelona.

Note - all schedules provisional and subject to change.