Having triumphed in the last two races in succession, Renault has seemingly maintained its performance advantage over BMW-Sauber as Formula 1's new 'third-best team' - by once again threatening the big guns in practice for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix.

Fernando Alonso and Nelsinho Piquet between them completed a marathon 129 laps of the Shanghai International Circuit for the R?gie, winding up respectively sixth and ninth-quickest in the morning running before improving to second and third positions in the afternoon, separated by just seven hundredths of a second on the timesheets and comfortably clear of the leading BMW.

"We were able to complete our programme without any problems," related Singapore and Japanese Grand Prix winner Alonso, "and we now have lots of interesting data, which will allow us to approach the rest of the weekend positively. We still have some things to improve, but we have clearly made progress today."

"I gained a lot from the three hours of practice available today," added Piquet, a circuit rookie but evidently buoyed by his impressive fourth place at Fuji. "I did a lot of laps and collected some interesting data that I'm now going to examine with my engineers. The balance of the car can still be improved, but I'm sure that this is something we can work on tomorrow during the final free practice session."

Renault has out-scored any other team on the F1 grid over the last two grands prix by a staggering margin of 14 points, and can put the coveted fourth position in the constructors' championship out of the reach of chief rivals Toyota should it register just two points more than the Japanese squad in Shanghai.

"We ran our usual Friday programme today," explained executive director of engineering Pat Symonds. "Nelson quickly got on top of learning the circuit and did some useful testing work. Our evaluation of the tyres shows them to be very similar, but the balance of the car is not yet where we want it to be."

"We completed more than 300 kilometres between our two cars," added head of engine track operations Denis Chevrier, "which is a good effort and we are happy with that. Like Fuji, Shanghai is a circuit that we know and where we already have lots of data, but we still had lots of parameters to examine and so we completed a busy programme with both drivers.

"Everything went well and we now have lots of information to analyse this evening, so it has been an encouraging first day of practice, not only because of our positions in the sessions."

There was a somewhat less encouraging end-of-day report, however, from BMW, for so long this season F1's established 'third force'. Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld wound up in lowly ninth and eleventh spots respectively, split by barely four hundredths of a second but each almost a full second shy of pace-setter Lewis Hamilton's best effort in the McLaren-Mercedes.

"As usual on a Friday, we did the tyre evaluation and worked on the set-up of the car," affirmed Kubica, still in with a shot of the drivers' laurels should he out-point both Hamilton and Ferrari's Felipe Massa this weekend. "We tried all kinds of different things, but I'm not happy yet with the balance of the car, and the overall level of grip is poor.

"We have to analyse the data carefully to make the right changes for tomorrow. There is still a lot of work to be done."

"In the second session especially I was quite happy with the long runs," countered a more satisfied Heidfeld, "as well as with the single laps. We have made quite a lot of set-up changes in the course of the day and during both sessions. Not every step was one in the right direction, but we understood and learned a lot."

"So far it is hard to make a judgement on the performance here in Shanghai," summarised the Munich and Hinwil-based outfit's technical director Willy Rampf. "Up to now we haven't found the perfect balance for both cars.

"With regard to the car's set- up, it is difficult to find a good compromise between both tyre compounds. We did a complete race distance with both cars today and gained a lot of valuable data, which we shall now evaluate. We had no technical problems."


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