Alonso dominates on day of debate

After the usual Friday runners - Sauber-BMW's Robert Kubica, Honda's Anthony Davidson and Alex Wurz of Williams-Cosworth - set the initial pace, times corrected for likely fuel load suggest that the Renaults of Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella enjoyed a half-second advantage over Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. At this stage it appears likely that it will be business as usual for the championship leaders in the French Grand Prix here tomorrow after the Indianapolis hiatus, where Michelin had to be conservative on tyre choice.

"So far, so good," Alonso said.

"The situation looks pretty good," Schumacher said.

But beneath seemingly calm waters, tensions remain high in Formula One. Manufacturers and the FIA, the sport's world governing body, continue to dispute the FIA's aspiration to "take a 21st century view of engine development", according to a spokesman, "rather than a 20th century view".

"Instead of spending vast sums on an endless quest for more revs and more power, we want the focus to switch to achieving maximum power and performance from a given amount of fuel, then recovering and reissuing as much of that energy as possible." In other words, making Formula One more relevant as a road-car research vehicle.

Whatever happens, the 2008 championship, to which all of the existing teams plus Prodrive have signed up, will be run with engines frozen to the specification that prevailed on 1 June 2006. The manufacturers are still arguing over what happens in 2007, before the existing Concorde Agreement is replaced by a new one in January 2008.

Meanwhile, the independent teams are flexing what limited muscle they have; the present Concorde Agreement requires unanimity. The independents will not agree to everything the manufacturers want in terms of engineering freedom because they have seen no sign of the £10m engines that the manufacturers promised three years ago.

They argue that it makes more sense for the manufacturers to stump up that sum between them, per year, to fund an independent engine of similar power and torque to the major teams' units, than it does collectively to invest perhaps more than £1bn in 2007, only to have to revert to mid-2006 spec power units in 2008. In return for that, they would agree to proposals for increased scope for development that the manufacturers want to put to the FIA for 2008 onwards.

It is the typical Formula One impasse, where self-interest often overrides other considerations.

For their part, the manufacturers have concerns. The 2008 development freeze appears to give an unfair advantage to Renault and Ferrari, who currently have the best engines. They also argue that equal power levels would lessen overtaking, and rob the sport of the development challenge that makes it so exciting. And that Formula One would be less interesting for current and future engine manufacturers.

One manufacturer-based insider said: "I honestly can't tell you whether any manufacturer will actually quit F1 over this, but if it were my brand/budget participating, I would certainly ask myself whether the playing field has just become less level, and whether I will ever have a realistic chance of winning the way the rules would be framed."

There is also a feeling that while they have kept their part of the deal with the FIA (by submitting their 2008 entries on time despite a schedule brought far further forward than usual, participating in all technical and sporting working group meetings, casting their votes, and generally keeping calm and constructive), its president, Max Mosley, is once again running roughshod over them.

The day ended with the McLaren principal, Ron Dennis, suggesting that it is "completely possible" that the Nascar-exiled Juan Pablo Montoya might yet reappear in Formula One this year. The gist was that the "employee" needed a period of "attitude adjustment". Cynics believe Honda will win a race before that happens, however.

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