Fernando Alonso sent his partisan supporters home happy at the end of the opening day's practice ahead of this weekend's European Grand Prix in Valencia, by setting the second-fastest lap time outright, barely a whisker away from the top of the timesheets.

The last time the man from Oviedo raced in Spain - in Barcelona back in April - he stunned the Formula 1 paddock by sensationally hauling his underperforming Renault up onto the front row of the grid. Having paid his respects to the victims of the tragic Spanair plane crash earlier this week by organising a moment's silence in-between the Friday sessions, he is now clearly hoping to impress just as much again on-track four months on.

"We kept to our programme today," the former double F1 World Champion reflected, "which was to complete maximum mileage and verify our simulations. The circuit is both interesting and challenging, and the final sector is definitely my favourite and quite exciting from the cockpit.

"The initial results from today are encouraging, but we must now continue working hard to have a solid qualifying session tomorrow and ensure a good level of performance in the race."

Indeed, between Alonso and ninth-placed rookie Renault team-mate Nelsinho Piquet, the R?gie got through a marathon 134 laps over the course of the two sessions, its drivers gradually dialling the R28 into the all-new Juan Carlos I Marina circuit to end the day both ensconced firmly inside the top ten.

"I was able to take advantage of the three hours of practice today to complete plenty of laps and gather lots of interesting data," Piquet corroborated, "which will be useful for the rest of my weekend. I really like the track, and it's a lot of fun in the car.

"The level of grip was poor, but we are used to this sort of thing on street circuits. I will now work with my engineers to optimise the set-up of the car, so that we can have a good final free practice session tomorrow morning and approach qualifying in good shape."

As Renault bids to wrest fourth place away from Toyota in the constructors' standings before season's end - with the big-budget Japanese outfit currently just four points ahead - the Enstone-based concern's executive director of engineering Pat Symonds well knows that every point gained - or lost - from now on could be critical.

"It has been interesting learning and adapting to this new circuit," the Englishman affirmed. "During today's practice sessions we completed our programme of learning the circuit, the car and the tyres.

"As expected, the grip level was very low to begin with and developed through both sessions. It is difficult to understand too much about our situation relative to the others, but we had no significant problems, which is encouraging for the rest of the weekend."

"We covered lots of miles today," added Renault's head of engine track operations Denis Chevrier, "which was the aim because the priority was all about making the most of the track time available. We had to gather as much information and data as possible to improve the car and get ready for the qualifying session tomorrow.

"In terms of the engine, we concentrated mainly on optimising the gear ratios. Now we have to wait for the final practice session tomorrow morning to have a better idea of our relative performance level. Overall, though, today was trouble-free and encouraging."

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