SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, BELGIUM // Fernando Alonso is confident Ferrari will improve upon its gains in the Formula One championship standings after leading the practice for the Belgian Grand Prix yesterday - but Mark Webber, who leads the drivers' race, said he was not concerned about the results or the rainy Belgian weather.
Alonso's lap of 1min 49.032secs on a dry Spa circuit was 11 seconds better than his leading morning time, which came on a rain-soaked surface. Force India driver Adrian Sutil was second with a lap of 1:49.157, and McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton was third. Ferrari have won three straight races at Spa and five of the last seven. "Let's hope it's our strength that the car responded well in all conditions today," Alonso said. "You also need a little luck in these conditions as it can make it a bit of a lottery."
With rain in today's forecast and teams limited to three sets of extreme wet tires over the weekend, Alonso said qualifying could throw up some surprises. "With these changing conditions you need to gamble a little bit in qualifying because you can gain two or three-tenths in one lap," the two-time champion from Spain said. "Having five drivers in the title fight in these conditions, you can quickly lose a lot of places."
Overall F1 leader Mark Webber celebrated his 34th birthday with the 18th fastest lap, while Red Bull-Renault teammate Sebastian Vettel was sixth, behind Renault driver Robert Kubica and Ferrari's Felipe Massa. Webber leads the championship with 161 points, followed by Hamilton with 157 and Vettel with 151. McLaren driver Jenson Button, who finished the day in seventh with a lap of 1:49.755, has 147 points. Alonso has 141.
Webber said Red Bull was not "going to lose any sleep" over the weather. The team has started from pole in 11 of 12 races. "Today was a bit of a messy day with the changing conditions, but it was actually pretty good for us," said the Australian, who leads the standings with four victories this season. "There are a few quick guys out there, but we're not slow either." Hamilton said his McLaren was well-suited to the track. McClaren have been the only team other than Ferrari to have won at Spa since 1999.
"It would be better for the fans if we had more tires and we could go out and drive more," said Hamilton, the 2008 champion. "It feels a little bit silly to be here, prepared all this time and just sit in the garage all the Friday. I wish we had more tires." Alonso's time came on his last lap after stewards had red-flagged the track with 15 minutes remaining as it deemed there "may be spectators in a dangerous area." That left only five minutes for teams to go all out on a dry surface for the first time, and the leading teams were close.
With temperatures expected to stay similar through tomorrow, Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari's duel for the title may not be so straightforward. Force India showed good pace at a track where they finished second last year. "Dry conditions would be the best thing for the top teams," Alonso said. "Any different conditions give the possibility for small teams to risk ... and have a very strong race." Even Michael Schumacher believed the mixed conditions could help Mercedes GP despite dropping 10 places from qualifying as a penalty for nearly forcing Rubens Barrichello into a wall at the Hungarian GP.
"We've had a very mixed day, so it's been impossible to judge," Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team principal, said. Rain engulfed the Ardennes countryside circuit for most of the day until the start of the afternoon session, with a GP2 event red-flagged between the two Formula One practices. Teams have practice today before qualifying to find the right balance for the conditions they will encounter in tomorrow's 44-lap race at one of Formula One's most illustrious tracks.
* Associated Press