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Nico Rosberg fourth in Friday's free practice


Alonso at today's free practice. Photo: AP/Fernando Herandez

Nico Rosberg was fourth fastest in today’s second practice session at the Valencia circuit in Spain, ahead of the European Grand Prix this weekend. He was just 0.367 seconds behind pace setter, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso who delivered an early warning of his intentions at what is basically a home race for him.

Mercedes GP's Rosberg was quickest in the first session, but as the day progressed and the times tumbled, Ferrari and Red Bull proved they had plenty of speed as well and dominated the top three positions. With just fractions of a second between them and Rosberg, Mercedes will be encouraged that at least they are heading into tomorrow’s qualifying with a chance and in the right direction.

"We've had a productive day and I am feeling comfortable in the car although the tires were a challenge again with graining and various issues." said Rosberg. "The option didn't seem to work well but it was the same for everyone and we made the most of it. The team has done a good job on our upgrades and I'm sure that they have improved our competitiveness. We have a few bits and pieces to resolve overnight but we are on the right track which is nice to see. We know that our race pace is better than our qualifying performance at the moment so if we can get our qualifying right, we should make good progress this weekend."

(Rosberg set the fastest time in practice one, but was relegated to fourth in the second session by Alonso, Vettel and Webber as Ferrari and Red Bull signaled their intentions. Photo: AP/Fernando Hernandez)

Michael Schumacher on the other hand was further down the order today and will need to fight hard to ensure he does not repeat his poor qualifying result in Canada which contributed to a disappointing weekend. The German has had a torrid few weeks since, having been viciously criticized by various F.1 pundits who lambasted his last outing.

Schumacher lashed-out at BBC commentators recently in response, describing their critiques as part of “show business”. The India Times reported Schumacher as saying, "Yes, you make mistakes and probably could have improved with hindsight but all in all I don't think there are many guys around in the world that at 41 can come back after a three-year break and compete at this high level and be pretty much there.”

He expressed excitement about his outing today as he familiarizes himself with a track he has not raced on before which contributed to him being a little off the pace today. "It was exciting to drive the track for the first time today, probably even to a bigger extent than I had anticipated yesterday after checking it." revealed Schumacher.

"So this morning for me was mostly about getting a feeling for the track. You need to get used to it but I found it quite comfortable to drive even if some of the corners are blind. However it's demanding to get the real rhythm which I have not totally found over one lap yet. The long runs went okay and all in all it was not too bad today, depending on the fuel loads obviously which we need to look into more deeply now."

Schumacher had a small exchange with Lewis Hamilton who was on a flying lap and was forced to slow to negotiate his way around the German. "Regarding Lewis, I must apologize as I did not see him and was not informed that he was there. As I was planning my lap at that moment and looking ahead, I was unfortunately in his way."

At least Schumacher won't have to worry about being penalized like he was in Monaco. The FIA recognized the lack of clarity over the safety car deployment during the last lap and has eliminated the confusion. The rule is already in effect as of early this week.

Today's outcome will mean little tomorrow until qualifying gets underway, something which Ross Brawn revealed "we know that we have to qualify well to avoid compromising our race performance". Most of the front running teams are using updates, in particular Ferrari, who are apparently operating a new exhaust system, which the BBC reported could give them as much as 0.5 seconds a lap. The design is based on Red Bull's system and it is believed there will be more parity between the top teams.

Mercedes motorsport boss, Norbert Haug, indicated that the car has been heavily upgraded for this event. "Today was not a bad start to the weekend with our heavily upgraded car.... With low fuel, our lap times could have been quicker today however Nico and Michael both had traffic on their fastest laps, as happened to other drivers. Our lap times in race trim with very heavy fuel loads have been quick and consistent today. If everything comes together as planned, Nico and Michael will be able to show in qualifying and on Sunday during the race that we have made a step forward."

The team will need both drivers to perform well tomorrow given the qualifying hassles at Canada which were not ideal. It will be very interesting to see how the front running teams respond tomorrow. The race lap record for Valencia is held by Timo Glock, a 138.683, which he nailed last year.

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