He might insist that he is keeping his expectations for his home grand prix this weekend firmly under check, but former double Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso nonetheless put smiles on the faces of his adoring partisan supporters in practice in Barcelona by ending the opening day third-quickest outright.

The Oviedo native has an impressive record around the Circuit de Catalunya, with victory in 2005, three further rostrum finishes and having not been off the front row of the grid for the past three years. He may have languished down in a lowly 17th position in the morning running, but an improvement of almost 1.3 seconds in the afternoon vaulted the 21-time grand prix-winner right up the order into P3 at the close - now the challenge is to repeat that showing in qualifying and on race day.

"The practice sessions were interesting," reported the 27-year-old, "because we had to evaluate some new parts that we have introduced to the car this weekend. In the first session we were struggling a little bit as we didn't have much grip, but for the afternoon we found something which took us in a good direction and improved the lap times.

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"We obviously need to remain realistic about tomorrow as this is only Friday, but we are reasonably confident that we can have a good qualifying session. The target for Sunday remains the same - to score as many points as possible."

If Alonso was up-and-down, then team-mate Nelsinho Piquet - oft-criticised for his lack of form in 2009 - was by contrast the very model of consistency, lapping seventh-fastest in the morning and eighth later on, placing him tenth overall, just under half a second adrift of the sister R29. For a man under considerable pressure and at the scene of his breakthrough top ten qualifying performance this time twelve months ago, it was an encouraging start to the weekend.

"It was a fairly typical day of practice," related the young Brazilian, "as we began evaluating the new developments on the car and assessing the tyres. I'm still not happy with the set-up of the car, so the priority tomorrow morning is to work on that so that we can approach qualifying in good shape and hopefully get the car into the top ten."

"A very normal Friday programme for us today," concluded the R?gie's executive director of engineering Pat Symonds. "We had a look at both tyre compounds and there were no big surprises - the harder tyre needs a bit of warming up, but the softer looks like it is performing well. We had no particular problems with the car today, although we are not totally satisfied with the balance yet."