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Alonso sets brisk pace in Bahrain practice

Fernando Alonso flexed his and Ferrari's muscles by topping the times in thefinal practice ahead of qualifying for the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix today.

Fernando Alonso flexed his and Ferrari's muscles when the former double world champion topped the times in the third and final practice ahead of qualifying for the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix today. The 28-year-old Iberian, making his Ferrari debut after moving from Renault, clocked a best lap of 1min 54.099sec to outpace nearest rival German Nico Rosberg of Mercedes by two-tenths of a second. Australian Mark Webber showed improved speed in his Red Bull to deliver the third-best lap time ahead of Rosberg's senior team-mate 41-year-old seven-times champion and compatriot Michael Schumacher, who was fourth.

Another German Sebastian Vettel, runner-up in the drivers' championship last season, was fifth in the second Red Bull ahead of Alonso's Ferrari partner Brazilian Felipe Massa. This left defending champion Jenson Button down in seventh for McLaren with his team-mate and fellow-Briton Lewis Hamilton struggling to 12th after suffering from brake problems and clocking only eight timed laps. Hamilton's time was 1.7s slower than Alonso's top lap, but this was partly because of his absence from the action when the leaders clocked their best efforts in the closing minutes.

Poland's Robert Kubica, who replaced Alonso at Renault, was eighth, Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi ninth for Force India and German new boy Nico Hulkenberg 10th in his debut weekend with the Williams team. The session was run in warm and dry conditions that gave a decent indication of the likely form and pace in qualifying when the top runners all lapped with low fuel loads in the closing minutes. Alonso's lap appeared to have laid down an ominous marker to his rivals, but Rosberg, rising to the challenge of matching four world champions in the field for a hugely-anticipated 2010 season, almost snatched away the top spot with a bold lap.

Much as expected the final seven places in the 24-car field were filled by the newcomer teams and drivers with Russian new boy Vitaly Petrov winding up 18th in the second Renault ahead of German Timo Glock's Virgin, the two Lotuses of Finn Heikki Kovalainen and Italian Jarno Trulli and Brazilian Bruno Senna, who was 22nd for Hispania Racing, clocking a valuable 11 laps. Another Brazilian Lucas Di Grassi managed only two laps for Virgin in 23rd place leaving the last spot 'vacant' as Indian Karun Chandhok failed to turn a wheel in the second Hispania car due to gearbox problems. He is out of qualifying.

Glock survived a drama in the session when he lost his left front wheel break away from his car and roll away on its own. He was unhurt. *AFP

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