It has been such a long break in between GPs that today’s free practice sessions are worth examining in a bit more detail than usual. And the news is that Alonso was fastest, perhaps putting an end to the silly speculation that he is under any pressure from Lewis Hamilton. The champion’s time was three tenths quicker than that of his closest challenger, Fisichella, and was set within the first half hour, whereas Giancarlo’s was a last minute effort.
On the face of it, the McLarens seem to be the cars to beat, Massa and Raikkonen finishing with the fourth and sixth fastest times respectively. But this is only practice and the real test will come tomorrow in qualifying. For much of the second session the Ferraris were clearly working on race set ups, anyway.
The pace of the Renaults (second and third fastest) tempts one to think that they have solved their problems, but both times were set right at the end of the session and were probably minimum-weight morale boosters. Much more surprising was the Toro Rosso of Scott Speed. His time was set early on but remained good enough for tenth fastest at the end, later runs being spoiled by an off course excursion. Even presuming that the car was set up for speed rather than endurance, it was an unexpected lap and might give second thoughts to those who doubt Scott’s ability.
Other than that, it was pretty much business as usual, with the BMWs being a little slower than we might have expected and the Red Bulls also disappointing somewhat. As I predicted earlier this week, the Super Aguris are losing their grip on the midfield and drifting down towards the back of the grid. But the Toyotas were awful, even their late runs failing to lift them from the company of the back markers. Everyone may have made progress over the long break but it seems some have made much less than others.
The times have to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course, and the likelihood is that qualifying will produce a very similar grid to those seen in the first three races. But, unless Ferrari were sandbagging as never before, we will not see them dominate qualifying as I was beginning to fear. On this evidence, things will remain very close up front and we could enjoy a fiercely-fought battle on Sunday.