MONACO — Fernando Alonso was fastest in Monaco Grand Prix practice while Michael Schumacher’s return to the famed street circuit after four years out saw the Mercedes driver finish fifth on Thursday.
Alonso marked Formula One’s 60th anniversary by topping both sessions, with the Ferrari driver’s afternoon lap of one minute 14.904 around the Mediterranean principality the quickest of the 24 cars.
“You have to keep your feet on the ground,” said the Spaniard, a two-time winner here. “This is a circuit to get confidence as soon as possible. It’s very important to start in a good way.”
Schumacher’s Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg was second, just over one-tenth of a second off the pace, ahead of weekend favourite Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull.
Felipe Massa finished in front of his former Ferrari teammate Schumacher — a five-time winner at the iconic racing track — who set a fastest time of 1:15.143 from 59 laps.
Robert Kubica of Renault finished sixth ahead of 2008 winner Lewis Hamilton, who was nearly four-tenths faster than teammate and overall F1 leader Jenson Button. Button was ninth behind Adrian Sutil of Force India.
Mark Webber, coming off a victory in Barcelona, rounded out the top 10 for Red Bull with a lap of 1:15.620 as grey clouds shadowed the circuit and rain sprinkled the track at the close to send the crowds that had gathered on moored trackside yachts to watch indoors.
With Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari all getting off to good starts, Alonso called Saturday’s qualifying “fundamental” since the polesitter has gone on to win five of the last six races. Red Bull has taken pole position in every race this season.
“We cannot afford a mistake,” said Alonso, who touched the wall at Casino Corner but continued since his front wing escaped major damage. “We need to be perfect on Saturday.”
Despite Red Bull’s qualifying superiority, Button comes into the season’s sixth race with 70 points to lead Alonso by three, while Vettel is third with 60 points and Webber next with 53.
“It will be tighter here than it was in Spain,” Webber said.
Hamilton was not adding extra pressure to score McLaren’s 16th victory here, although he felt positive about his chances.
“The car just feels light-years ahead of last year’s car. I think we should be okay,” Hamilton said. “But you never know what the Red Bulls are doing and in (final) qualifying, they always seem to pull out a good chunk of time.”
There were few incidents over the two sessions as Schumacher managed to regain control after losing grip on a number of occasions.
“I got back into the rhythm of the track, especially on the long runs, and I think we can be quite confident for tomorrow as the car is definitely quite reasonable to handle,” said Schumacher, who has 22 points. “The other teams who have a certain top-speed advantage on other tracks at the moment do not have this advantage here, so the whole field comes a bit closer together.”
All teams expect traffic to be a problem come Sunday’s 66-lap race, although drivers were just dealing with it.
“It’s always tricky,” Kubica said. “But for Monaco, it wasn’t too bad.”
Only the new drivers on the circuit came close to hitting one of the tight barriers. HRT’s new pair of Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna escaped trouble. Chandhok lost grip in Massenet in the morning to lightly tap the barrier after spinning out, and Senna, who finished more than seven seconds back of Alonso in a troublesome car, came to a halt around the corner after Mirabeau in the afternoon.
Kamui Kobayashi of Sauber went off at Mirabeau in the sunny morning session and lost his front wing with a missed exit at the Swimming Pool.
Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari lost control coming out of the Tunnel and had to cut across the chicane to regain control at one point.
Today is a traditional off-day at Monaco, which is one of only four races to have been on the calendar since 1950. Practice continues on Saturday.