Much is expected of the Red Bulls here, on a circuit where downforce is at a premium and, in comparison with their rivals, they have it to spare. But in yesterday's opening practice sessions Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button fractionally eclipsed them, Hamilton in the first and Button in the second, as McLaren kept their hopes alive of taking the fight to the energy drink cars this weekend.
Hamilton ruled the roost in the first session with Button just behind him. The Red Bulls picked up their pace in the afternoon, when Spain and Monaco winner Mark Webber and team-mate Vettel were left sandwiched between the McLarens.
Button had a bit of a wobble through the very fast triple-apex left-hander that is Turn 8, but he secured the fastest time in the second session nonetheless. Hamilton was less happy with his McLaren, but he still managed fourth with Alonso right behind him. The Mercedes of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher were also within striking distance.
"This morning was reasonably good, and this afternoon was better," Button said. "I was struggling a little through Turn 8, it's an area we'll be working on overnight because it's pretty tricky through there at the moment. It's a tough corner, especially if the car's moving around – so we've got to hope we can solve some of those issues before tomorrow.
"The car feels reasonably good around here – there are still some areas where we're not so strong and the Red Bulls will once again be the cars to beat in qualifying tomorrow, we can't get away from that. I just hope we're closer than we've been in the previous two races."
Hamilton was quite relaxed about his day's work. "This is such a great circuit and the grip didn't seem too bad today," he said. "It also seems very tight between all the front runners – the times are very close. Our car doesn't seem to be performing too badly, so I'm happy with today's running.
"Turn 8 is quite bumpy as always, and you could see today that some of the others were having a few difficulties through there, but it wasn't a problem for us."
This type of circuit often produces the two-by-two effect, where team-mates lap at similar speed due to the manner in which the characteristics of the layout suit their cars, but Felipe Massa was notably slower than Alonso. The Brazilian won three races on the trot here between 2006 and 2008, but struggled with his Ferrari's handling yesterday as he twice went off the road in Turn 8.
On the second occasion he slid sideways at more than 155mph, and flat-spotted his only set of soft compound Bridgestone tyres, which meant he could not improve on 10th.
It was a promising day for Red Bull, notwithstanding the failure of a high mileage Renault engine in the back of Webber's car late in the afternoon and some minor problems for Vettel, who was running a new chassis.
"The engine went at the end of P2, but it was a high mileage engine, so we were expecting it to be on the edge," Webber said. "There's no handbrake on an F1 car so when I stopped I was trying to tell them [the marshals] to put something behind the wheel to stop the car rolling back. We need to analyse the new F-duct system [which Red Bull are using for the first time at this Grand Prix] tonight, we know it's not the most straightforward of systems. The guys have done a phenomenal job to get it to this point and we're happy with how it went today but, whether we race it or not, we don't know yet."
In Spain the McLarens were the fastest on Friday, only to be blown away by the Red Bulls in qualifying. The way things are in F1 right now, you wouldn't bet against a repeat of that form.
"I have no doubts that tomorrow in qualifying the Red Bulls will pull out something extra, which they always seem able to do," Hamilton said philosophically. "We haven't made too many changes to the car for this race, but we've got a chance this weekend, and I think we'll be able to compete with them."
In keeping with the frenetic development pace, and their own extraordinary rate of creating new parts, Red Bull equipped their cars with the go-faster F-duct developed earlier in the season by McLaren to stall airflow over the rear wing and boost straight-line speed, but also brought along new engine covers and front wings. McLaren have some new aerodynamic parts, while Ferrari, fifth fastest courtesy of Fernando Alonso as they celebrate their record 800th Grand Prix, have their F duct too.
The paddock talk yesterday centred on the possibility of two-day Grands Prix and as many of 24 of them a season, and the likelihood of movable rear wings being introduced to help spice things up in 2011.
It may be significant that Button had his McLaren equipped for the first time with some different brake discs, which he prefers to the Carbon Industries equipment which he and Hamilton have used all season. Hamilton uses the brakes much harder than Button, who prefers his to have a little more feel so that he can finesse them.