• Red Bull driver records day’s fastest time
• Alonso and Massa second and third quickest
McLaren’s easy dominance of today’s practice session was rudely overturned when, in the space of a few minutes towards the end, their times were bettered by Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull and the quick and the red Ferrari pair of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.
In the morning session Jenson Button had been fastest, followed by Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. For much of the afternoon the British pair were significantly quicker than their rivals but in the end they had to settle for fourth and fifth positions.
Friday practice tends to be a notoriously poor pointer to race Sunday. But Red Bull were expected to struggle on a track which does little to recognise their superior downforce. Instead, it was thought it would favour the greater power of McLaren, although Ferrari were always expected to be a danger in their home grand prix. In the final half-hour of the second session, though, both Red Bulls and Ferrari emerged with lower levels of fuel and softer tyres to remove any complacency that may have crept into the McLaren camp.
It was also a disappointing day for championship leader Hamilton’s main rival, Red Bull’s Mark Webber, who is just three points off the lead. He was sixth in both sessions, although in the afternoon he lost water pressure and had to stop the car. He missed the last 19 minutes of the session.
Vettel, who needs to regroup quickly if he is to revive his championship challenge following mishaps in Hungary and Belgium, said: “It was quite good today. It’s a Friday, so the lap times vary and you don’t know what the fuel loads are. But I’m quite confident. We will see the true pace tomorrow. McLaren are extremely quick. Ferrari were quick in the afternoon too. It will be tight. The gap between the cars will be very small.”
However insignificant the times today Ferrari will be comforted by them. The team has been under pressure and their performance in their home grand prix, where Alonso in particular will be scrutinised, could decide their season. Certainly, Alonso cannot afford another of the driver errors which have marred his campaign and held the deepest affection of the Ferrari supporters at arm’s length. Alonso said: “We have seen before that Friday’s results are very often turned on their heads on Saturday, so I definitely don’t want to make any predictions. We ran with different fuel levels today.”
Massa almost crashed when he went wide across the gravel at Parabolica, and his immediate fate was concealed in the clouds of dust thrown up by his car. Ferrari are never far away from drama these days.