Alonso's Renault puts the smile back on French faces

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The Independent Online

When you aren't winning races, what's the best thing you can give your supporters in your home race? Why, fastest lap in a Friday practice session. That was what Renault and their driver Fernando Alonso duly delivered yesterday, as the Spaniard headed the two Ferraris and Lewis Hamilton's McLaren.

But even Alonso had trouble keeping a straight face as he admitted his performance had much to do with relative fuel loads and did not really mean that the 2005 and 2006 champions had found their way back ahead of the red cars.

"We were able to continue our free practice programme this afternoon without any problems," he said after an engine failure at the end of the morning's session. "We tried several new elements that we ran in the test last week in Barcelona, and everything went well and we completed our programme. But that does not mean that we have suddenly overtaken the Ferraris..."

Indeed not. Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen were focused on the usual Friday things of chassis set-up and tyre choice, and were less concerned about outright lap times. Hamilton was in the same mode, and he and Massa both explored and exceeded the limits of adhesion on more than one occasion.

"We made a great deal of progress this morning and seemed to get the car dialled in nicely to the circuit," Hamilton said. "This afternoon I unfortunately had a twitchy moment at the exit of Turn Three and ran wide into the gravel. It cut short my run with no major damage and slightly disturbed our run programme. At the end of the session, we tried out a new safety car timing system, which still needs a little more work. But today has shown we're looking quick this weekend."

Hamilton also demonstrated speed off-track. The previous day he had unequivocally indicated his support for fellow drivers who were considering possible strike action over the rising cost of their super licences, even though he is not a member of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association. Yesterday, however, he changed his mind and issued a corrective statement which said: "In the FIA press conference at Magny-Cours on Thursday I expressed my support for whatever decisions the drivers may take, on the basis that my support could be critical."

"I am not involved in any strike talks; that is not my position. I am here to race; to do my job for the team, for myself and for the fans of Formula One.

"To put my comment in the correct perspective, another driver said, 'I think it will be difficult to get all the drivers to have the same idea, but we're trying to convince the FIA to reduce the cost.'

"I then responded, 'I've always said that they have my support; and it's something I agree with as well.'

"In any case, I don't believe for one minute that the drivers will take such drastic measures. We have the British Grand Prix in a couple of weeks' time and other grands prix to follow, and I'm certainly not planning on missing any of them."

Off the track there was further action as the mandatory controversy about the British Grand Prix reared its head, right on time to scare beleaguered members of the British Racing Drivers' Club ahead of their big event in two weeks.

This time, it was the suggestion that the race could go to Donington Park in Leicester, the scene of the Grand Prix of Europe in 1993 which was won sensationally by the late Ayrton Senna.

"We are discussing the possibility of reaching an agreement with Donington to host the British Grand Prix," Bernie Ecclestone was quoted as saying. "We are trying to save the British Grand Prix and we want it to be staged at a venue which befits an event of its stature.

"I have been in negotiations for a long time and whether or not we're going to do a deal with Donington or Silverstone, I don't know. Donington have said they are going to build everything we want. Have they got the money? Only time will tell. But I think there is more chance of Donington having the money than the BRDC."

Ecclestone's dissatisfaction with the BRDC is now part of the sport's folklore, but it is difficult to envisage Donington being any more successful than Silverstone in achieving the standards that Ecclestone demands of European tracks since, besides the track itself requiring a major upgrade, there are not sufficient hotels in the region.

When the ebullient Leicester developer and circuit owner Tom Wheatcroft finally achieved his dream of hosting a grand prix at Donington, back in 1993, poor weather ensured that it was a huge success and Senna won sensationally in changing conditions after trouncing the faster Williams-Renaults of Damon Hill (now president of the BRDC) and Alain Prost. But that price was a deficit believed to be £3.5m.

French GP practice times

First session: 1 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1 min 15.30 sec; 2 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:16.002; 3 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren 1:16.055; 4 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:16.073; 5 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:16.377; 6 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:16.400; 7 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:16.758; 8 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:16.838; 9 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:16.870; 10 T Glock (Ger) Toyota 1:16.886; 11 N Piquet (Br) Renault 1:17.063; 12 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull-Renault 1:17.234; 13 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:17.269; 14 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 1:17.394; 15 R Barrichello (Br) Honda 1:17.491; 16 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:17.683; 17 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota 1:17.696; 18 J Button (GB) Honda 1:17.928; 19 G Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari 1:18.072; 20 A Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari 1:18.673.

Second session: 1 Alonso 1min 15.778sec; 2 Massa 1:15.854; 3 Raikkonen 1:15.999; 4 Hamilton 1:16.232; 5 Vettel 1:16.298; 6 Kubica 1:16.317; 7 Kovalainen 1:16.340; 8 Heidfeld 1:16.458; 9 Piquet 1:16.543; 10 Coulthard 1:16.572; 11 Rosberg 1:16.682; 12 Trulli 1:16.743; 13 Bourdais 1:16.758; 14 Nakajima 1:17.002; 15 Glock 1:17.092; 16 Webber 1:17.106; 17 Button 1:17.244; 18 Fisichella 1:17.394; 19 Barrichello 1:17.591; 20 Sutil 1:17.868.