Fernando Alonso provided Spanish fans with hope of a successful Renault weekend after setting the fastest lap time in European Grand Prix practice, while Brawn GP showed it may have rediscovered its early season form following a three-race dip.
Alonso timed a best lap of 1 minute, 39.404 seconds across two sessions at the Valencia street circuit course to lead overall F1 leader Jenson Button and Brawn GP teammate Rubens Barrichello.
Alonso, a two-time world champion from Spain, was only cleared to race on Monday when F1’s governing body overturned Renault’s one-race ban stemming from a safety incident at the preceding Hungarian GP.
Ferrari replacement Luca Badoer’s first return to F1 after a decade did not start well, with the 38-year-old Italian driver finishing 18th with a lap time 2.6 seconds off of Alonso’s.
Badoer is replacing injured driver Felipe Massa, who won here last year. The Ferrari reserve driver finished over a second behind teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
Romain Grosjean’s debut for Renault started better than Badoer’s with Ferrari as the 23-year-old Frenchman - the first to drive for the French team in 24 years - finished 13th, 1.383 seconds off his teammate’s pace.
Button has seen his championship lead slip since picking up a sixth victory from seven races at Istanbul. He now leads Red Bull’s Mark Webber by 18.5 points following three poor races.
But car upgrades appear to have benefited the British team as Webber finished nearly eight-tenths of a second off Button’s pace, while Webber’s teammate Sebastian Vettel - who trails Button by 23 points in third - was just over half a second back.
Williams pair Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima rounded out the top five, while Adrian Sutil gave Force India hope of picking up its first points after major upgrades helped the German driver finish sixth fastest.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, who was coming off his first win of the season at Budapest, was third fastest in the morning session but saw his second stint end after three laps.
Badoer trailed leader Barrichello by 3.380 seconds after the first session as Michael Schumacher - who was poised to replace Massa only for a neck injury to deny the seven-time champion’s return - watched on from pit lane.
Alonso had trouble with traction and skidded repeatedly, at one stage sending Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber car airborne during the second session.