Alonso fastest in 3rd day of testing

Fernando Alonso steered his Ferrari to the quickest single lap of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, as the Italian team continued to show signs its poised for a positive start to the championship.

Running on soft tires, the Spaniard put in the pacesetting effort before the lunch break of 1 minute, 21.875 seconds in front of the home crowd at the Catalunya Circuit. He switched to longer-lasting hard tires in the afternoon for a race simulation.

This was the third straight day of practice for Alonso, who skipped the first test in Jerez. There, teammate Felipe Massa recorded the best lap time through four days of testing. The two-time world champion was pleased with the day’s showing, which he said included new aerodynamic configurations and tire setups.

"With every change we made, the car reacted as I expected and it was useful to try out the different settings, especially to understand which direction we need to go in next week, when there will be a greater emphasis on performance," Alonso said.

While it is still too early to predict real race speeds compared to the other likely title contenders, Ferrari can at least take comfort that the problems it suffered at the beginning of last season haven’t resurfaced.

New Sauber pilot Nico Hulkenberg clocked the second fastest lap, while Romain Grosjean came in right behind in his Lotus. "It was a positive day. We got a lot of testing done with just minor problems," said Hulkenberg, who raced for Force India last year. "I ran the soft tires in the morning here in Barcelona for the first time to get a feeling for those, which was interesting. The car is performing pretty well, and I’m as happy as I can be."

Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg recorded the fourth fastest time ahead of Pastor Maldonado and rookie teammate Valtteri Bottas, who took turns behind the wheel of Williams’ new car just launched on Tuesday. The new Pirelli tires were again a hot topic as they are proving to degrade more quickly than last year.

"We didn’t have a perfect morning and it was tough out there with the low temperatures," said Rosberg. "They were causing a lot of tire graining, which made it difficult to do much useful testing. It was a few degrees warmer after the break and that gave a completely different picture."

Mercedes said new pilot Lewis Hamilton will drive in Friday’s closing session. McLaren’s Jenson Button put in the seventh fastest time. His team said he would be out again on Friday, which could see rain.

Several drivers put in long runs in the afternoon with Grosjean topping all with 119 laps completed on the day. Rosberg and Red Bull’s Mark Webber were next at 108 laps each, while Jean-Eric Vergne of Toro Rosso was the only other driver with over 100 laps at 106.

The session under overcast skies in northeastern Spain was free of any major incidents. The only red flag waved with 15 minutes to go when Giedo van der Garde’s Caterham stopped and had to be hauled out of the way before testing briefly resumed.

Preseason testing returns to the Barcelona track next week ahead of the season-opening Australian GP on March 17.