Home boy Alonso tames rampaging Red Bulls as Ferrari ring the changes

Spaniard praises his team's new aerodynamic package after reeling in McLaren's advantage at Valencia Grand Prix

Fernando Alonso has tetchily refused to accommodate many interviews for the Spanish press this weekend, but he gave the fans what they came to see out on the track yesterday.

Driving a revamped Ferrari with a new aerodynamic package incorporating a "blown" diffuser similar to that seen on the highly competitive Red Bull, he set the fastest time – 0.056secs ahead of the duo of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber – to justify the optimism with which he approached his second home race of the season.

"I think we have been improving the car every race more or less, so I think it is a matter of how much the others improve as well to see a clearer step ahead, a step forward," he said.

The Spaniard believes he could have won last time out in Canada even without the new system, which guides hot air from the exhausts in such a way as to enhance airflow over the diffuser and thus increase downforce.

"I think we are optimistic. We are happy with the job we have done in these last couple of weeks, so we arrive in Valencia with a good package in our car.

"But we remain very calm about our expectation as other teams were not watching television in these last two weeks, so I think everybody will bring updates here. Hopefully ours is a little bit better than others."

Cleverly, Ferrari gave him a brief shakedown run in the revised car at their private Fiorano test track last week, as part of a filming project. It did not count as a test because that would have contravened in-season rules banning such things.

"The feeling was very good," Alonso said, tongue-in-cheek. "I was running behind a car with cameras, so it was very good at 60 kmh, very stable!

"We expect a step up with the car, a little bit quicker but, as I said before, I think all the other teams will bring some new parts here, so I think the most important thing is to confirm that we are competitive here, as we did in Canada, and we need to keep improving the car. Silverstone, Hockenheim, Budapest ... it's not one evolution in the car in the year and you stop.

"This is a job that we need to keep doing until Abu Dhabi, so there is a long way to go but we are optimistic."

After Nico Rosberg had set the pace in the morning for Mercedes – from the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button – the pendulum swung in the favour of Ferrari and Red Bull in the afternoon, as the pace, but not necessarily the level of grip, picked up in the afternoon.

On the softer-compound prime Bridgestone tyres it was Ferrari, Red Bull, Red Bull, Mercedes (Rosberg), McLaren (Hamilton)and Renault (Robert Kubica).

But, just as they had in Canada a fortnight ago, all of the drivers had struggled initially with the softer-compound option tyre as they slipped and slithered their way around the still-green track in the morning.

Things were better in the afternoon, however, and the weather is more settled here than it was in Montreal. With support events for GP2, GP3 and Formula BMW, grip can be expected to get better still as the track rubbers in.

As Alonso's optimism seemed justified and he pushed ahead, Hamilton was philosophical.

"The first session looked quite good for us. But it was always going to be interesting to see how quickly the blown-diffuser cars could get up to speed and they looked very competitive this afternoon, particularly over a single lap. And the grip they appear to have through the high-speed stuff could make them difficult for us to touch."

McLaren will have their blown diffuser ready for Silverstone in two weeks' time, when the car that has won the last two races will receive another serious update.

Meanwhile, Hamilton and Button may have to tread water here. Hamilton's afternoon was interrupted by a near-miss with Michael Schumacher.

"It's always difficult to find a gap out there," Hamilton said. "I saw Michael ahead of me and I thought he was on a quick lap – then, all of a sudden, he slowed down to create a gap from the guy in front.

"Around here, it's all about managing the gap between the guy in front and the guy behind. Fortunately, I missed him, so no hard feelings – and I hear he apologised, so it's all good. There is no problem."

Alonso had a big smile when he talked of his sessions. "Here, as in Montreal, our car seems to work well, even if it's difficult to make a direct comparison, given that the track surface is very different and that one needs a bit more aerodynamic downforce.

"Together with Felipe [Massa], we worked on the development of new technical solutions, but it is hard to say how much we have improved compared to the others. The F10 has turned out to be easy to drive and competitive in every situation, both with low and high fuel loads, but it is too early to say where we are.

"This morning, the McLarens were very quick, the Red Bulls are always on front-running pace and even Mercedes and Renault are very close. However, our only aim is to be ahead of everyone, otherwise we wouldn't be Ferrari.

"I think it will be interesting to see this race, how it goes. There have been some circuits better, some circuits with problems, some up and down for the team performance in the last couple of races, so hopefully we can continue the performance we saw in Montreal. The line that put us in a competitive level, fighting with McLaren and Red Bull.

"In Turkey we were not quick enough, so we want just to try to confirm the feeling of Canada and be competitive here again and hopefully finish on the podium."

Interestingly, he was much more confident ahead of Spain's World Cup meeting with Chile last night. "Easy, easy, easy," he laughed. "We will win. That's for sure."

Practice Times

European Grand Prix, Valencia, Spain: Second practice: 1 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1min 39.283sec; 2 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:39.339; 3 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:39.427; 4 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:39.650; 5 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:39.749; 6 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:39.880; 7 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:39.947; 8 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1: 40.020; 9 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:40.029; 10 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:40.174; 11 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:40.287; 12 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:40.387; 13 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:40.618; 14 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 1:40.906; 15 P de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber 1:40.945; 16 S Buemi (Swit) Toro Rosso 1:41.115; 17 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 1:41.371; 18 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso 1:41.457; 19 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus 1:42.467; 20 J Trulli (It) Lotus 1:42.993; 21 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:43.437; 22 T Glock (Ger) Virgin 1:43.811; 23 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin 1:43.854; 24 B Senna (Br) HRT 1:44.095; 25 K Chandhok (India) HRT 1:44.566; 26 C Klien (Aut) HRT 1:47.343.

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