Alonso leads out Hamilton in display of defiance from team

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After Ferrari headed the practice times for the Belgium Grand Prix yesterday morning, the beleaguered McLaren team turned the tables in the afternoon to set the quickest times of the day. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton were separated by only 0.111sec, as Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen gave chase.

Alonso lapped in 1min 46.654sec, a time Hamilton seemed set to beat until he go his car slightly sideways as he put the power down on the exit to the first part of the final corner. It was a minor error, but sufficient to snatch away a tenth or two of a second from his time. He had to be satisfied with 1min 46.765sec.

"A good start to the weekend, with all our set-up work completed and with some positive results," Alonso said. "The car feels good to drive round here, but as always there is still room for improvement. We have a good idea of where we are and where we can improve, so it should be a close fight all weekend."

Hamilton was equally upbeat. "Today we completed all our work without any problems. I love this circuit, so really enjoyed driving round here and just seeing what the MP4-22 could do.

"The balance of the car on this technical circuit is good, but I struggled to get a clear lap all session until the very end. That being said I could really feel a definite improvement in our overall performance since we tested here back in July."

Massa, who went off the road on cold tyres after only two laps in the morning session, posted 1min 46.953sec, Raikkonen, who had been fastest then, 1min 47.166sec.

"Despite losing time this morning, in the end we can call this is good day," the Brazilian said. "We did some useful work on set-up and on the balance of the car and on a comparison of the two types of tyre available to us. From what we could see, we are working in the right direction. Now, we have to analyse the data very carefully to be as well prepared as possible for tomorrow's qualifying and for Sunday's race."

Raikkonen was slightly less upbeat. "Satisfied with the way things went this morning," he reported, "but a bit less happy about the afternoon would sum up my day. This morning the car balance was very good, while we struggled a bit in the second session to find the right settings. We need to get the package we have to work better."

Spa-Francorchamps is everybody's favourite track, but it is a gruelling test of drivers and cars with its 320kmh straights, the 70 kmh La Source hairpin, and myriad sixth-gear sweeps. The highlight is, of course, the famed 300 kmh Eau Rouge, which still rewards commitment even if most said after the test here in July that it is an "easy flat" in the new breed of V8 cars.

Practice times from Spa

First session: 1 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1min 47.339sec; 2 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:47.881; 3 F Alonso (Sp) McLaren 1:47.994; 4 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:48.052; 5 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 1:48.372; 6 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:48.605; 7 A Wurz (Aut) Williams-Toyota 1:48.920; 8 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:48.994; 9 H Kovalainen (Fin) Renault 1:49.138; 10 J Button (GB) Honda 1:49.330; 11 G Fisichella (It) Renault 1:49.380; 12 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 1:49.548; 13 M Webber (Aus) RedBull-Renault 1:49.894; 14 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault 1:49.931; 15 R Barrichello (Bra) Honda 1:50.264; 16 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso - Ferrari 1:50.482; 17 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda 1:50.640; 18 A Davidson (GB) Super Aguri-Honda 1:50.648; 19 A Sutil (Ger) Spyker-Ferrari 1:50.768; 20 V Liuzzi (It) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:51.628; 21 S Yamamoto (Japan) Spyker-Ferrari 1:52.379; 22 F Massa (Bra) Ferrari.

Second session: 1 Alonso 1min 46.654sec; 2 Hamilton 1:46.765; 3 Massa 1:46.953; 4 Raikkonen 1:47.166; 5 Trulli 1:47.491; 6 Schumacher 1:47.946; 7 Fisichella 1:48.086; 8 Webber 1:48.271; 9 Kubicka 1:48.279; 10 Kovalainen 1:48.567; 11 Heidfeld 1:48.606; 12 Rosberg 1:48.840; 13 Coulthard 1:48.883; 14 Button 1:48.919; 15 Barrichello 1:49.364; 16 Wurz 1:49.393; 17 Yamamoto 1:49.697; 18 Vettel 1:49.720; 19 Sato 1:50.168; 20 Sutil 1:50.399; 21 Davidson 1:50.542; 22 Liuzzi 1:50.865.