In the absence of Michael Schumacher it was left to local favourite Fernando Alonso to steal the headlines in Valencia as the Formula One circus reared its head from a month of hibernation and let rip around the city’s Juan Carlos I Marina in preparation for Sunday’s European Grand Prix.
Only a few days ago the Spaniard was preparing to join the injury-restricted Schumacher on the sidelines for his home grand prix after the FIA banned Renault for their actions in the Hungarian Grand Prix when a wheel came loose from Alonso’s car.
With the decision overturned, Alonso found himself at the centre of a media frenzy when he left the track after topping the timesheets in the afternoon practice session.
It was mostly the doing of McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh who took the lid of the least closely guarded secret in Formula One by revealing that Alonso would “probably” move to Ferrari in 2010.
“I think in reality there are some changes probably with Fernando at Ferrari,” Whitmarsh told the BBC.
“That frees up the driver market and every year there is a number of pivotal points during the season which determine what is going to happen in the driver market.
“This year I think we all know that the Fernando/Ferrari move has a knock-on and that ripples through the other teams.
“Clearly the BMW withdrawal has also had an impact. I think we don’t see a need at the moment to rush into it, we are concentrating on developing the car and making sure we are more competitive, which I hope we will be this weekend.”
Ferrari vehemently denied that any deal had been done.
Unfortunately for Renault and Alonso, it took the shine off a solid performance at a circuit which, on paper at least, should be less favourable to the R29.
“It was a positive day for us with some good laps and the car performed well right from the start of the first session,” said Alonso. “We worked on the set-up throughout the day and now we’re pretty much happy with what we have so I think we are in good shape for the rest of the weekend. The incident with Nick Heidfeld this afternoon was a normal incident that can happen during racing or free practice. For tomorrow, we will try our best to get on the front row of the grid with the objective of scoring points on Sunday.”
Alonso’s afternoon did not run without drama after he collided with Nick Heidfeld in the middle of the session.
Taking too much speed into the final corner of the circuit, Alonso could not avoid the BMW, sending Heidfeld flying into the air. The Renault driver also spun in the dying minutes of practice after setting the fastest lap of the session.
Alonso’s pace could help Brawn GP as championship Jenson Button looks to defend his eighteen point lead over Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel after finishing outside the top three in the last few races.
The Brawn cars certainly seemed to enjoy the hotter temperatures in Valencia and Jenson Button finished the second session just over half a second adrift of Alonso in second place.
“We’ve had a reasonably good first day of practice and it’s encouraging to see that the car seems to be on the pace again.”
“The focus of our programme was on set-up checks and back-to-back evaluations to confirm that the work done back at the factory after our shutdown was in the right direction. There is still some work needed on the set-up before qualifying as I’m not completely happy with the balance but all in all the pace of the car seems reasonably good.”
Team principal Ross Brawn confirmed that the BGP001 was better suited to the track conditions: “We’ve had a good start to the weekend today with two strong practice sessions. The track temperatures are very high here, reaching 50°C this afternoon, so we have been able to manage our tyre temperatures well and not encounter the issues which have hampered our pace at the past few races.”
“Both drivers followed very similar programmes as we revisited some set-ups from previous races as test items to increase our understanding of the car’s performance. The initial feedback is that Jenson and Rubens are broadly in agreement on the direction that we should follow from here. and we’ve pleased to have collected so much data to apply here and take onto the next race in Spa. Overall it’s been a positive beginning to the weekend.”
Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton, fresh from his first victory of the season in Hungary, ran strongly in the morning practice session, but an early spin in the afternoon resulted in the Brit tagging his Mclaren s new front wing into the barrier and damaging the support hangar.
A though the contact was only slight breaking one of the front-wing hangers the team s lack of spares meant that he was forced to sit out the remainder of the afternoon session.
“I touched the wall, but didn t even really feel the impact,â€ Lewis later admitted. “I only grazed the front wing but, unfortunately, it couldn t be repaired as we didn t have a spare one. Hopefully, we can get a new one for tomorrow, or else we ll have to make some changes we don t have lots of these wings available.
“I didn t feel too happy with the car this morning, but the changes we made between the sessions were very positive. On my last lap, I was six tenths up and it was already looking quite good, so I feel positive for Saturday. It s a shame we missed out on so much track-time, but I still think we ll be okay tomorrow that time can always be regained.â€