Whether or not the F2012 has been improved since the Mugello group test earlier this month remains to be seen, but Fernando Alonso gave Ferrari a morale-boosting start to the Spanish Grand Prix weekend with fastest time in opening free practice.
While Ferrari continued to evaluate changes made to its car - with Alonso circulating with a day-glo rear-end as the team used copious amounts of flo-vis paint - the Spaniard cheered a sun-soaked crowd at the Circuit de Catalunya by posting a late 1min 24.430secs lap to move back ahead of Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel by nearly four-tenths of a second.
Neither Ferrari featured all of the parts tested at its second Italian facility, but also tried a few that were unavailable as it attempted to get the F2012 closer to the pace of the frontrunners, sufficient enough to warrant a wall of mechanics to block unwanted attention in the pit-lane. The other car, driven by Felipe Massa, was down in twelfth spot, but only just a second off the pace.
The Brazilian was the first driver outside a second of Alonso, with the majority of the top eleven just the wrong side of 0.5secs adrift. Vettel, whose RB8 also sported aero changes, ended the 90-minute session closest to the Spaniard, 0.378secs off the pace, with Kamui Kobayashi a surprise third for Sauber, a tenth further back as almost every team tried to further evaluate ideas that first saw the light of the day in Italy at the start of the month.
Notable amongst those was McLaren, which not only tested its new higher nose configuration back-to-back with the lower design that started the season, but also refitted the 'toast rack' sensor array at the rear of the car and ran with an unusual bar across the bridge of the nose, which it claimed was a precursor for next
season in order for the drivers to gauge likely sightlines. Jenson Button proved to be the fastest of the Woking team's two drivers, in fourth spot, while Lewis Hamilton claimed eighth, although both complained of excessive understeer from the MP4-27.
Valtteri Bottas produced his best run as reserve for the Williams team by slotting into fifth place, some twelve spots and 1.2secs ahead of race regular Pastor Maldonado. That put the young Finn, who will replace Bruno Senna in FP1 at the majority of races this year, ahead of Michael Schumacher, Romain Grosjean, Hamilton and countryman Kimi Raikkonen, although the margins between them were slim. Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top ten for Force India, with Jean-Eric Vergne the last man within a second of Alonso at the wheel of his Toro Rosso.
Like Massa, both Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg were conspicuous in trailing their respective team-mates by some distance but, with almost every team having something to test, it was likely that they were working on alternative programmes.
Bottas was not the only 'third driver' in the field as four teams took the decision to trot out young talent. Jules Bianchi returned for Force India, this time in place of Paul di Resta, while Caterham and HRT gave FP1 debuts to Alex Rossi and Dani Clos respectively. Bianchi was unable to repeat the top ten performance he produced in Bahrain, but kept his nose clean and settled for 18th, three places ahead of American WSbR frontrunner Rossi, who saved his lone set of Pirellis for when the track was at its cleanest before completing 25 laps - the most of any reserve - in the CT01. Clos, on home soil, also did as well as could have been expected, racking up 19 laps in a front wing comparison exercise before his car developed a problem that left it limping down the pit-lane entry late on. The youngster unsurprisingly propped up the timesheets behind team-mate Pedro de la Rosa, who benefited from the latest HRT wing development on his reliveried machine.