BARCELONA, Feb 29, 2012 (AFP) - The countdown to the start of the 2012 Formula One season continues this week as teams enter the third and final pre-season testing session at the Circuit de Catalunya here on Thursday.
The four-day event, staged just north of Barcelona, runs until Sunday and will offer drivers one last opportunity to acclimate themselves to their new cars ahead of the season curtain raiser in Melbourne on March 18.
The opening test in Jerez at the beginning of February and the subsequent session in Barcelona last week saw the title challenging duo of Red Bull and, in particular, Ferrari spend considerable time adjusting to their new vehicles and rule changes.
Rivals McLaren, meanwhile, completed hundreds of laps unscathed as they came to grips with the MP4-27.
Mercedes, led by Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, showed they could mount a challenge for the podium, while Sauber sprung a surprise last week as Japan's Kamui Kobayashi topped the timesheets at the conclusion of the second testing session.
Venezuelan Pastor Maldonando finished with the second fastest time, an achievement not lost on the Williams team after they endured a dismal 2011 campaign, registering just five points in total.
Nico Hulkenberg of Force India was third quickest during the second test, while the inexperienced pair of Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo have proved competitive in the Toro Rosso STR7 car and will aim to continue in similar fashion.
Lotus withdrew from last week's testing following a chassis problem, but are set to return for the third session, while Caterham will want to improve upon two disappointing performances to date.
HRT will hope to make its first test appearance this week, having missed the opening two, but the news is less promising for Marussia, formerly known as Virgin.
They won't take any part at the final test after the new MR01 car failed a mandatory crash test, leaving rookie French driver Charles Pic with only two days of testing in last year's car under his belt going into the Australian Grand Prix.