Jenson Button gave Honda cause for renewed optimism ahead of the European Grand Prix around the all-new Juan Carlos I Marina circuit this weekend - by recording the third-quickest lap time during free practice.

All drivers and teams spent the opening day acclimatising themselves to the harbour-side street track, with the lap times falling as grip went down on the new asphalt and circuit knowledge increased.

Though Button was just 17th-quickest in the morning running, he improved dramatically later on - to the tune of almost a full three seconds - to ultimately wind up behind only Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and home hero Fernando Alonso in the Renault.

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Indeed, that performance marks the 28-year-old's finest Friday showing of 2008 to-date, as he ended proceedings sitting less than a tenth of a second adrift of the fastest time of all and having made significant progress in terms of set-up on his RA108.

"It was good to finally get out on the new Valencia street circuit today," the Briton enthused, "after previously experiencing the lap on the simulator and having a closer look during our track walk yesterday.

"We were struggling with very low grip this morning, and I'm sure that was the same for everyone out there. The track is very dusty, and if you go off-line your tyres are quickly covered in dirt, which makes it difficult to be consistent.

"We made a lot of changes to the car this afternoon, which have proved positive and provided a great deal of useful information to study this evening. It was nice to do a quick lap at the end on the option tyre. Hopefully we can further improve the car overnight, and be reasonably competitive for qualifying tomorrow."

Despite his afternoon struggles with braking issues - consigning him to a lowly 20th spot at the close - team-mate Rubens Barrichello was equally enamoured with the new venue, which baked in Mediterranean temperatures of upwards of 30 degrees in the afternoon. The 36-year-old finished sixth around the similarly winding streets of Monaco earlier this season.

"The new circuit here in Valencia is impressive and the grip levels have been improving throughout the day," the experienced Brazilian related, "so the lap times are becoming more representative. We had a good morning session and I felt the car was quite well-balanced, but this afternoon it was almost like I had a completely different car.

"We changed some parts for the session and unfortunately they had a real impact on the car's performance which, along with some braking concerns, meant we were unable to progress. I'm confident that we can resolve these concerns overnight and get back on the pace for qualifying tomorrow."

"The track is very dirty as it is so new, " concluded the Brackley-based outfit's head of race and test engineering Steve Clark, "and it's very easy to lose a bit of direction as the track improves - the car balance changes and the tyres behave differently. There are also some unknowns, like the optimum downforce level and the drivers finding the racing line.

"In addition there is the additional challenge of getting the brakes to work correctly. There is quite a lot to get to grips with, and we have to do so as quickly as possible. Fortunately we have two very experienced drivers, which makes the process a lot easier.

"Jenson has obviously done a good job today and is looking extremely competitive. Rubens has some braking problems that we have had to live with during the session because there wasn't sufficient time to fix them. If we can resolve this issue then there is no reason to think that both cars can't be quite closely-matched during the rest of the weekend.

"I think we have done a good job here in Valencia so far, but credit should also go to the rest of the team for all the hard work that was achieved off-track during the three-week break. The progress we have made with honing our recent developments appears to be paying dividends."