Short of revealing that he and Ferrari are in-shape to do battle for victory once more this weekend, Fernando Alonso has given his adoring partisan fans about the biggest reason for cheer that they could have hoped for on the eve of the 2011 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona - by asserting that the Scuderia has 'made a step forward' and should be capable of fighting for the podium on Sunday.

The newly re-signed Alonso was speaking after lapping fifth-quickest in opening practice around the Circuit de Catalunya today (Friday), albeit more than a second shy of the leading pace. In company with team-mate Felipe Massa, the double F1 World Champion completed a busy day of running during which a whole raft of new parts for the F150? Italia were put through their paces, shared between the two drivers. Further focus was apportioned to set-up work and analysing the two tyre compounds provided by Pirelli.

"We tried a lot of new things today, and now we must extrapolate the information from all this work and select the best parts to put on the car for tomorrow," reported home hero Alonso. "My first impression is favourable - I think we have made a step forward and I think the chances of fighting for a podium finish are even more likely here than they were in Turkey. We still have to work on the set-up; today, we had too many things to test and we did not have time to make too many changes.

"It is always difficult to judge the gaps in free practice, because there are always differences between one car and the next. I am certainly not surprised that the Red Bulls are still ahead of everyone; at the moment, they are the fastest and tracks like this one or Budapest are particularly well-suited to their characteristics. Having said that, while it's true it might be difficult to beat them in qualifying, maybe in the race we can get closer, also to the McLarens and put them under pressure.

"Pirelli has brought a new type of hard tyre, and it's hard to imagine we can get through Q1 without having to resort to using the softs. One thing we had already seen in winter testing [in Barcelona] and which has been confirmed today is that degradation is pretty significant, so there is cause to expect a race like the one in Istanbul in terms of the number of pit-stops."

Prior to the weekend, Alonso had conceded that, unsurprisingly, the Spanish Grand Prix 'has a special feel about it for me' with flag-filled grandstands supporting him and 'the warmth one gets from the fans right from the very first free practice sessions'. The only occasion on which the 29-year-old has triumphed there, however, was back in 2006 with Renault F1 - what he describes as 'one of the best moments of my career' - and he admits 'it would be a dream come true to do it again with Ferrari sooner or later'.

Predicting more overtaking around the Circuit de Catalunya in F1 2011 than in previous campaigns due to differences in tyre performance, he underlined the sheer willpower inside the corridors of Maranello to rebound from what has undeniably been a disappointing start to the campaign with but a sole rostrum finish to-date.

"On paper, we do not yet have the potential to be in a straight fight for the win, with one team clearly the favourite in this regard," confessed the 26-time grand prix-winner. "However, we know things can change quickly in our sport and, in Turkey, finally we managed to bring home a podium finish. The road is still long, but I believe we have at least started down it going in the right direction.

"The team has worked so hard in Maranello on developing the F150? Italia and in order to be as well-prepared as possible for these two back-to-back races, given that next week we will be back on-track in Monaco. During the days I spent in the factory, I could feel that everyone there really wants to fight back - the feeling is so strong you can almost touch it.

"Both Felipe and I have done so many kilometres in the simulator, and we feel that the updates being introduced will see us make progress in terms of performance. Whether or not this will be enough to close the gap to the best, we will only find out over the weekend, because we cannot ignore the fact that the others have not been twiddling their thumbs. We will see who has been the cleverest in the development championship. It would be nice to jump on the podium again and be able to salute all our fans from there - and we will be giving it our very best shot."

Massa, for his part, lapped seven tenths slower than Alonso on Friday in Barcelona, with the Brazilian bedevilled by tyre issues that ultimately resulted in a trip into the gravel trap - and fearing that 'there's still a crucial gap to our main rivals'.

"That wasn't an easy day for me," reflected the 2008 world championship runner-up. "I had lots of problems getting the tyres to work, especially the hard compound, and I didn't manage to put together a good time - there's a lot of work to do in this area. When I went off the track, I lost the rear and I ended up in the gravel; I passed very close to the barriers but fortunately I didn't touch them, so I managed to make it back onto the track without damage.

"Still, [the 'off'] was a pity, because the new parts that we've brought here have improved our performance, even though the other teams remain very strong - there's still a crucial gap to our main rivals. Now, we must make the right choices to prepare as best we can for qualifying and the race."

"A lot on the menu today," summarised Ferrari's assistant technical director and head of racetrack engineering Pat Fry, "and an initial reaction would be that first impressions are positive. We had a lot of new components to test; as always in these situations, some worked well, others less so and now it's a case of putting together the jigsaw puzzle with the best pieces available. We also tried new aerodynamic concepts to assess how useful they might be.

"All-in-all, I think we have made progress in terms of performance, even if it is difficult to specify exactly if and by how much we have closed the gap to the quickest. The aim is to improve our performance in qualifying and also make progress in terms of our race pace, working down the same route we have taken for the past few races. It will not be easy to succeed, but we are confident.

"Compared to what we saw in winter testing, even taking into account the fact that temperatures are much higher now, tyre degradation seems very high - in fact, I reckon the pit-stop crew will have a lot of work to do on Sunday afternoon..."



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