Heikki Kovalainen set the pace for the first time in 2009 on the opening day of practice for this weekend's Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul, confounding predictions around a circuit at which McLaren-Mercedes had widely been expected to struggle.

The Woking-based outfit's MP4-24 challenger has generally suffered around tracks with lots of high-speed corners - hence its abject performance in the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona last month - and with the Istanbul Park Circuit being just such an example, hopes for the weekend have been kept firmly in-check. The Friday form of both Kovalainen and team-mate Lewis Hamilton, though, suggests they may not need to be.

Defending Formula 1 World Champion Hamilton shone in the morning session - recording the second-fastest lap time to good friend and former karting sparring partner Nico Rosberg in the Williams - and whilst the British star would fall back to tenth in the afternoon, Kovalainen swiftly took up the mantle, producing an effort that was six thousandths of a second out of reach of any of his pursuers, led by Fernando Alonso, the driver who had preceded him at McLaren.

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The Finn spent the early part of the day evaluating the latest series of aerodynamic modifications to the car - additions to the front wing and the rear floor - and refining the balance, before improving the handling later on and professing himself pleased with progress, despite being stymied by an ongoing issue with his brake balance system.

"At the start of the session, the track was very green and it was quite hard to stay on the road, particularly in the opening corners," reported the 27-year-old, who achieved his maiden F1 front row grid position in Istanbul this time last year, ahead of Hamilton. "At first, the car was quite difficult to drive, but we worked hard during the session and I think we found a very good balance.

"The most important thing is that the car is working fine - and the balance is surprisingly good. I think we've made another step forward, so everybody in the team can be pleased about today. I still think it will be a tough fight to get into the top ten tomorrow, but we'll be trying the maximum to improve overnight so that we can join the fight. Overall, it's very encouraging."

Those sentiments were largely corroborated by Hamilton, who wound up eighth-quickest in the final reckoning, albeit only four tenths adrift of the sister Silver Arrow, as the top 16 contenders were all covered by barely seven tenths of a second. The 24-year-old enjoyed a busy and productive day conducting tyre comparisons, but lost the back end of his car on the exit of turn one and later out-braked himself into turn twelve during his final run - testament, he contended, to just how hard he was trying.

"The track was very slippery this morning, particularly in the first sector where several cars were sliding around a lot," the nine-time grand prix-winner related, "but we had a very good session. I was very satisfied with the car; it felt good to drive. More encouragingly, I could also feel a subtle improvement from the new parts we tested today, [so it was] a good start to our weekend.

"Before we arrived here, we thought we'd probably have the same sort of pace that we had in Barcelona, but it seems like we're a little bit faster than we anticipated. I had a couple of spins this afternoon - but that just proves I was pushing hard!

"We have a little instability on the exit of some corners, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the pace of the car today. The guys back at the factory have worked hard to give us this improvement; now we'll keep on working and trying to improve the car, and hope that tomorrow is an even better day for us."

Indeed, it was a promising showing all-round from the multiple world champions, who are continuing to strive desperately to haul themselves back onto the front-running pace following a torrid start to proceedings in 2009. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh was in particularly buoyant mood at the end of the day, contending that whilst there is 'still a lot of work left to do to optimise the car...the timesheets don't lie'.

"A good effort today by Heikki, who was quickest despite having a very frustrating two sessions," the Englishman underlined. "This morning he had a valve problem with his tyres so had to switch sets at the last minute, which interrupted his programme, and this afternoon he had a problem with his brake balance sensor. Despite all this, he conducted his full programme and made reasonable progress over his long runs.

"Lewis concentrated on a tyre comparison and set-up programme. I think we possibly went in a few wrong directions this afternoon, so we're comfortable with the pace we've achieved. There's still a lot of work left to do to optimise the car, but hopefully we can continue the strong progress we started today.

"It's always nice to see you've set the quickest time of the day. The reality is that the timesheets don't lie, and our aim for tomorrow is to hopefully get both cars into the final session of qualifying. That's our realistic goal."

"Today was a productive test day for us," concurred Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug. "The lap times seem to be closer than ever with just over seven tenths of a second separating Heikki in first from 16th place in the rankings. Our lap times during this afternoon's race simulations looked not bad, and hopefully we can make another step forward tomorrow and start from a good position on the grid for Sunday's race."