Alonso pips Hamilton in practice to raise hopes of a closer contest

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The Independent Online

Fernando Alonso's mood will have improved after he recorded the fastest time in practice yesterday before the Grand Prix of Europe.

Click HERE to upload graphic: Valencia: Where the race can be won or lost (73kb)

The Spaniard, who on Thursday attacked his Ferrari team over this season's poor results, led home Lewis Hamilton in a session that suggested this weekend's events in Valencia may not be as much to Red Bull's liking as the season thus far.

Both Ferrari and McLaren came hoping limitations on the way teams change engine mapping might bring them closer to Red Bull's pace and, when Alonso and Hamilton eclipsed the world champion Sebastian Vettel in the afternoon, that hope appeared justified.

Alonso remained his usual cautious self, aware that things such as fuel loads can significantly influence speed on a Friday when teams are still sorting their cars and can go for long runs as well as low-fuel, all-out spurts. Knowing who is doing what, and when, is still difficult to figure out on these occasions, even for the teams themselves.

"The track characteristics are well suited to our car, but it is too early to say where we are compared to the others," Alonso said after a late run to 1min 37.968sec. "In practice one and two you try so many things and the track changes very quickly – even more on a street circuit like this one – so it is really impossible to make predictions."

Meanwhile, at McLaren, Hamilton and Jenson Button seemed well off the pace in the morning as they struggled a little on medium compound tyres while trying revised parts which will be needed when the ban on blown diffusers comes into effect for Silverstone in two weeks. In the afternoon Hamilton deposed Vettel as the fastest man on track until Alonso's final run, and remained second with 1:38.195 to the German's 1:38.265.

"It was very slippery out there today," Hamilton said. "In the afternoon the grip was a little lower because the new medium-compound prime tyre proved a bit tricky to switch on. But once we fitted the softer option tyre, it was much easier to drive and we seemed to have some pretty decent pace.

"There are still plenty of improvements we can make. We need to work on the balance; it's not a million miles away, but it could be better.

Button was sixth, behind on-form Michael Schumacher's Mercedes and Felipe Massa's Ferrari, and just ahead of Mark Webber's Red Bull.

"This morning we were mainly collecting data, so I spent quite a lot of time in the garage," Button admitted. "In the afternoon, I did a bit more running and tried both tyre compounds. The prime proved quite difficult to switch on, and consequently we couldn't find good balance with it. I think we've a good balance on the option and, because the track will grip-up quite a lot with every session we run, we're now heading in the right direction balance-wise with the prime too.

Neither Vettel nor Webber appeared too concerned about the rule change. "Maybe I will be surprised, maybe not," the former said. "But from what I judge now, there is nothing to be afraid of. We got to Australia and we were quite a bit quicker than others, then we get to Malaysia and we had to push hard to be on pole. Nothing changed on the car, it was just a different track."

Webber said the new rules had made little difference. "McLaren were not slow in Canada and neither were Ferrari, so not much has changed. On all of this subject we wait until Silverstone, as it's a normal GP in terms of the new regulations, at least for us anyway."

It was a gruelling day for the Scottish rookie Paul di Resta. Force India's test and reserve driver Nico Hulkenberg drove his car in the morning session and got caught out by the slipperiness of the "green" track, hitting the wall under braking. The resultant crash damage was not fixed until the final third of the afternoon session, which left the 25 year-old with less than 10 minutes in which to acclimatise and set a decent lap time.

Di Resta once again showed his class by doing just that, but said: "The guys did a great job to get everything repaired in time for me to get out for the final few minutes, but I only managed three timed laps. It means there is plenty of work to do in final practice tomorrow morning to make up for the lost track time."