MONACO // Formula One celebrated its 60th birthday with Fernando Alonso's red Ferrari fittingly fastest in practice for the showcase Monaco Grand Prix. Flying the flag for the only team to have been around since the very first season, the Spaniard dominated both sessions on a tight and twisty street circuit as synonymous with Formula One as his Italian glamour team. Steering well clear of the unforgiving metal barriers, the double world champion lapped in 1min 15.927sec in the morning and then carved more than a second off after lunch with a best time of 1:14.904.
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel was second quickest in the first session, 0.073sec slower, while Mercedes's Nico Rosberg pushed his fellow German into third place in the afternoon. Neither of the two 90-minute sessions saw any major incidents, despite there being six more cars on track than last year due to the three all-new teams that have made their debuts since then. The slowest car on track, the HRT driven by Brazilian rookie Bruno Senna, was more than seven seconds off the pace set by Alonso.
Australian Mark Webber, winner in Spain on Sunday for Red Bull, was fourth fastest in the first session but dropped back to 10th in the second. Germany's seven times world champion Michael Schumacher ended the day fifth fastest for Mercedes. The former Ferrari ace was making his first appearance on track in Monaco since a now-infamous 2006 race when he was sent to the back of the starting grid by stewards who ruled he had deliberately blocked rivals in qualifying.
If Schumacher were to win for Mercedes on Sunday, he would equal the late Brazilian Ayrton Senna's record of six wins in the principality. World champion Jenson Button, last year's winner for Brawn, was eighth and ninth respectively for McLaren and just behind 2008 champion and teammate Lewis Hamilton in both. The Automobile Club de Monaco marshals and fire crews, always the trendiest in F1 with their mirror shades and red and gold helmets, were rarely troubled on a bright morning on the Mediterranean coast.
They, and the fans sunning themselves in the harbourside grandstands and yachts moored along the quay, could soak up the atmosphere as the day got off to a quiet start and before a sprinkle of rain dampened spirits in the afternoon. The first proper timed lap of the morning came after 20 minutes, with the noise levels rising and the wail of engines bouncing off buildings and reverberating through the tunnel as a stream of cars left the pits.
Alonso, a double world champion who took back-to-back Monaco victories for Renault and McLaren in 2006 and 2007, was 0.109sec clear of Rosberg in the afternoon with the rain preventing anyone beating his time. The only drivers to test the ring of steel around the circuit were Indian rookie Karun Chandhok, whose HRT skimmed the barriers at Massanet, and Japan's Kamui Kobayashi in a Sauber at the swimming pool complex.
The first Formula One championship race, the British Grand Prix, was held at Silverstone on May 13, 1950. Ferrari made their debut in Monaco a week later. * Reuters