VALENCIA, SPAIN // In his all-conquering heyday, Nigel Mansell, the British Formula One champion, would regularly proclaim the zealous home support cheering him on at Silverstone was worth as much as half-a-second per lap.
Fernando Alonso, Ferrari’s Spanish driver, is not quite as optimistic: he deems passionate compatriots worthy of “maybe one-tenth”.
Yesterday, however, on the Valencia Street Circuit and on the first day of practice ahead of tomorrow’s European Grand Prix, Alonso bettered the rest of the field by more than two-tenths of a second to post the quickest lap of the afternoon. Even ignoring the sparsely populated stands, such a result indicates Ferrari’s assault on the world championship is continuing to gather pace.
In Monaco a month ago, Alonso finished second, while in Canada two weeks later he started on the front row before being forced to retire mid-race. He spoke on Thursday of how he believed he has executed the best driving of his career this season, but that he needs the best car in the field if he is to win a third world championship. The Italian manufacturers are slowly improving, but Alonso is in no rush to start talking up his chances.
“Already, in the past, we have gone well on the first day only to see ourselves losing out by a second in qualifying, therefore I don’t even want to consider the timesheets,” said Alonso, who has never finished higher than sixth in the three years the coastal city of Valencia has hosted the European race.
“In FP1 and FP2 you try so many things and the track changes very quickly – even more so on a street circuit like this one – so it is really impossible to make predictions. The car seems to handle well, therefore we can tackle qualifying with confidence, aware that we are up against very strong rivals: it’s not by chance that Red Bull have always taken pole in the first seven races of the year and clearly they are still the favourites.”
Alonso’s former teammate Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes finished second fastest yesterday 0.227s behind, while last year’s winner, Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing, was third, a further 0.08s back.
Vettel had finished the morning session with a lowly 16th fastest lap, but admitted his team had been experimenting ahead of next month’s British Grand Prix, where new FIA regulations will prohibit the off-throttle use of blown diffusers.
“Sometimes you try different things,” Vettel said. “If you’re not in the top five or the top 10, clearly you’re running a different programme from the others, so that was the morning – there were no secrets from us. In the afternoon we were more or less on the same pages as the rest and as you’ve seen, it’s very tight.
“The important thing is we are there or thereabouts. It is tight here. Last year obviously we had a very good race, but there were a couple of people, Lewis and Fernando in particular, who were very close to us.”
Vettel said there is no specific driver or team that concerns him more than others as team performances change from circuit to circuit.
“Sometimes the gaps are bigger, sometimes they are much closer,” Vettel said. “I give you the perfect example – we go to Australia, we are quite a bit quicker than the rest, we come to Malaysia, and we really had to push hard to qualify on pole. That’s two weeks, nothing was changed on the cars, it was just a different track: That’s how it goes. That’s why here as we expect it will be very tight.”
Hamilton, one of only two drivers to beat Vettel on a Sunday, agreed with his rival, but added he hoped to spring a surprise on the rest of the field.
“It looks very tight up at the front, but we’re definitely in the fight, which is the important thing,” he said. “And I think we’ve got some more pace up our sleeves for the rest of the weekend, too.”