Alonso tops European GP practice on Valencia streets

OK, so where were we? Oh, right, holiday. And now, back to the business of racing Formula One. But first, let's review. Massa head hurt. Piquet head done in. Schumacher in. Schumacher out. Badoer back. BMW out. Factories shut. Renault to court.

OK, so where were we? Oh, right, holiday. And now, back to the business of racing Formula One.

But first, let's review. Massa head hurt. Piquet head done in. Schumacher in. Schumacher out. Badoer back. BMW out. Factories shut. Renault to court. Renault reprimanded. Renault fined. Renault to Spain. Grosjean to Renault. BMW back in. Badoer tests.

And you thought holiday meant basking on a beach. Ha!

When the factories weren't shut for a fortnight in an attempt to cut costs -- something Williams F1 says it will give a miss next time, thank you -- Brawn GP got back to figuring out what took the championship-leading team off the podium for two consecutive races.

Gazes fell on the rear suspension, the region possibly giving off signals when Rubens Barrichello's car gave off a spring that hit Felipe Massa in the head in Hungary, putting the Brazilian -- who might never again want to hear the phrase "knockout qualifying" -- out of racing for the foreseeable future.

The exam seems to have worked because Brawn GP topped practice time sheets Friday morning in Valencia, Spain, when Barrichello ended first practice for Sunday's European Grand Prix out front. Wearing a helmet bearing tribute to Massa, he set fast lap again in the second outing, later in the day when the circuit bore more grip-giving rubber and when hot conditions helped reproduce earlier form -- and took away conditions in which the team sought to learn why their tires hadn't performed in cooler circumstances offered at the British and German grands prix.

But hometown hero Fernando Alonso, whose presence required a $50,000 fine to sanctioning body the International Automobile Federation (FIA) for the privilege, came up tops at the end of the day. More on that later.

The Spanish double world champion drove his Renault R29 to the only sub-1 minute, 40-second lap of Valencia's 3.36-mile harborside street circuit, a 1:39.404. The Brawns of drivers' championship leader Jenson Button and Barrichello followed in 1:40.178 and 1:40.209, respectively.

Renault was expected to lighten Alonso's fuel load for Saturday qualifying to let the driver called the best working right now take pole on a circuit stingy on passing opportunities. The car coming good could only help the French manufacturer's aspirations. But a late, championship rally -- seven races left mean 70 maximum points so if he swept every one perhaps Alonso could challenge for his third title -- seems doubtful. Thus, talk swirls higher that Alonso will join Ferrari next season, when Spanish bank Santander becomes a sponsor of the Italian team, and -- purportedly -- after the Italian team buy out the contract of their 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen. So make what you will of McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh's comment to BBC Radio 5 Live: "We all know that Fernando Alonso's move to Ferrari will have a ripple effect on other teams." All righty then.

Seeing as how Alonso ran nearly eight-tenths of a second faster than next up Button, it's small wonder everyone wants him. And this after his R29's front wing was stripped off in an incident with BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld.

Williams job hunter Nico Rosberg and teammate Kazuki Nakajima pushed up behind the Brawns for fouth- and fifth-quickest afternoon times, respectively. Force India's Adrian Sutil, putting upgrades to good use, followed ahead of BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica and Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella.

Only thereafter came a Red Bull presence. Red Bull, remember, won two of the three most recent races. China and Britain winner Sebastian Vettel was ninth. Vettel jumped into his RB5 seemingly moments after signing up to a contract extension with the drinks company-sponsored team. Vettel, 22, will remain Bullish through 2011, with an option for 2012. The German, whose history includes becoming F1's youngest substitute entrant, youngest pit-lane speeder, youngest points scorer, youngest pole holder, and youngest winner, began his Red Bull affiliation with the Red Bull Junior Team when he was -- get this -- 12.

McLaren Mercedes No. 2 Heikki Kovalainen followed Vettel's practice best with 10th, ahead of fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari. Their teams, also sporting new-and-improved bits, are the only ones using the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS). Raikkonen -- is he McLaren or World Rally Championship bound? -- complained of right front vibration.

Jarno Trulli, at one moment third, timed 12th for Toyota. He was followed by Renault newbie Romain Grosjean, who inherited the seat taken from the underperforming Nelsinho Piquet. German race winner Mark Webber followed for Red Bull ahead of the second Toyota, handled by Timo Glock. Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi, who began the season as the only rookie, followed Glock. Buemi, who wants you to know the session was hot, said a new front wing seems to be fulfilling its promise.

Heidfeld wound up 17th for BMW Sauber. Ferrari fill-in Luca Badoer came 18th, two-and- a-half seconds slower than Alonso. Now before you bag on Badoer for being slow in his first racing weekend in a decade, note that he incurred four fines and a steward reprimand for speeding in the pit lane.

Toro Rosso's rookie, rookie, Catalan Jaime Alguersuari from just up the Med coast in Barcelona, was 19th ahead of World Champion Lewis Hamilton of McLaren. Hamilton managed a lurid spin that he somehow kept off the circuit's walls. But front wing damage kept him in the garage for the rest, that is, most, of the session.

Oh, you really have been at the beach?

Then the bits you missed were that Massa's Ferrari friend Michael Schumacher sought to fill in for him only to learn a motorcycle wreck some months ago rendered the seven-time world driving titlist German's neck unworthy. The discovery brought on veteran tester Badoer to race. Cue a mini-row over whether Ferrari substitutes could "test" a current car, a concept counter to a current ban on in-season testing. After all, teenager Alguersuari hadn't been allowed to test before he drove the second Toro Rosso in the Grand Prix of Hungary, acquitting himself well. It's surely only coincidence that the lead protester to a Ferrari shakedown, Williams F1, was the carmaker involved in the sport's previous accident even remotely as bad, the one on May 1, 1994, when another Brazilian driver, Ayrton Senna, suffered a blow to the head. He died.

The day after the Grand Prix of Hungary, won by Hamilton, Piquet posted a blistering attack on Renault for telling him he had lost his race seat. Renault did not confirm that intelligence until after a hearing to appeal a stewards' penalty assessed during the race. Renault was suspended for this weekend's race after a wheel came off Alonso's car. Thus, through most of a monthlong break, no one knew if Alonso would race. Only Monday did the team, supported by written remarks from four other teams, have the suspension overturned on appeal in favor of a reprimand and a fine. (If you're keeping track, Brawn GP had a part detach in qualifying, but no suspension or fine followed.) Tuesday, Renault promoted reserve driver Grosjean to Piquet's seat.

Meantime, BMW decided to pull its support from BMW Sauber, leaving minority partner Peter Sauber, original founder of the F1 team, to scramble for backing in hopes of retaining an entry for 2010. BMW now wants to help secure that entry.

All too confusing? Well, select a cool drink -- may we suggest sangria? -- dream ahead to GP2 team Meritus becoming Asia's first F1 team by 2016, and train an eye on track action, which continues Saturday with qualifying.

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Series Formula 1
Drivers Jarno Trulli , Luca Badoer , Rubens Barrichello , Mark Webber , Kimi Raikkonen , Fernando Alonso , Lewis Hamilton , Ayrton Senna , Peter Sauber , Nico Rosberg , Heikki Kovalainen , Robert Kubica , Timo Glock , Sebastian Vettel , Kazuki Nakajima , Adrian Sutil , Sébastien Buemi , Romain Grosjean , Jaime Alguersuari , Martin Whitmarsh
Teams Ferrari , Mercedes , Sauber , McLaren , Force India , Toro Rosso , Williams , Brawn GP