Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button set the pace in practice for the Italian Grand Prix while the world championship leader had a frustrating day.
Ferrari's reliability issues concern Alonso as McLaren shine
MONZA // A sea of Ferrari red flows through the village of Monza, but as the famous Prancing Horse prepares to gallop in its home grand prix tomorrow afternoon, the tide appears to be turning in the fight for the 2012 drivers' title.
Fernando Alonso, the Italian manufacturer's Spanish driver, has led the world championship since he won the European Grand Prix in Valencia in late June.
However, after being forced to retire in Belgium last week - the first time he has failed to finish in the points this year - his sizeable lead has diminished substantially. He now sits only 24 points ahead of Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel with eight races remaining.
Yesterday, Alonso's route to a third world title looked rockier still as, despite finishing third fastest in the afternoon behind Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, his car suffered a series of reliability issues.
The 31 year old, aiming to triumph at Monza for the second time in three years, experienced engine failure late in the morning session, then, in the afternoon, suffered a braking problem and, later, a gearbox issue.
Ferrari confirmed Alonso's gearbox would be changed, but said he will not face the consequent five-place grid penalty because it was a practice unit. The former Renault driver added he does not expect the issues to arise again this weekend.
"It was just a little bit of a strange Friday because of mechanical failures," said Alonso, whose Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa finished fourth fastest.
"Sometimes we push parts to the limit to work experimental things on a Friday. We need to take care and this was a good reminder again how important the driveability of the car is and how important it is to take care of any details because small problems stop the car immediately.
"Sometimes when something happens on Friday it will never happen anymore on Saturday and Sunday. So we will make sure that what happened won't happen anymore."
Reliability may prove to be the least of Alonso's worries, however, as McLaren-Mercedes appear to be winning the in-season development race and have found a level of consistency that they lacked earlier in the year.
The English racing marque last week became the first team to win consecutive races this season and, under a warm European sun, Hamilton and Button looked ominously quick.
Hamilton has found himself in the spotlight this week after strong rumours linked him to a move away from the Woking-based outfit for next year.
Yet he ensured he would remain in the headlines for the right reasons after beating Button by 0.038 seconds to claim the day's fastest lap.
The 27 year old has never won the Italian Grand Prix, with his best result being a second place in 2007. but that has not diminished his enthusiasm for racing at the Italian venue.
"Monza is an absolutely stunning place on which to drive - the speeds are incredible and, when you get the flow right, it feels simply amazing," the 2008 world champion said.
"It's somewhat deceptive, too: a map of the track makes it look quite simple, but it's actually incredibly technical and incredibly difficult to nail those final thousandths on a quick lap."
Vettel, who won the race 12 months ago, set only the 13th fastest time in the afternoon, but was not concerned and said the team had collected plenty of valuable data from the two sessions.
Teammate Mark Webber added: "We're not normally the Friday world champions, so we'll do some work now.
"We often find a good step ahead of qualifying."