Alonso optimistic over title chances
By Sarah Holt
BBC Sport at the Circuit de Catalunya
Williams rookie Nico Hulkenberg stole the spotlight from Ferrari's Fernando Alonso on the second day of the final pre-season test in Barcelona.
Double world champion Alonso looked set to top the times with an impressive lap set in the morning but the German beat him by 0.023 seconds later on.
Hulkenberg's time of one minute 20.614 secs remained unbeaten as the fastest time so far at the four-day test.
Michael Schumacher was seventh fastest, just ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
The Englishman was cautiously optimistic about McLaren's prospects for the season, saying that he did not expect a repeat of last year, when they turned up at the first race with one of the slowest cars in the field.
"We're in a much stronger position than last year," Hamilton said.
We are still in some doubts about how quick we are until we get to Bahrain but we are optimistic.
"It feels all new, light years ahead of last year but we still have a lot of work to do.
"It's so hard to tell (if we can win in Bahrain). From now until the first race everyone will bring updates and I think we'll know by the Friday when we get there where we are."
Williams, like Ferrari and many of the other teams, are using this test to try out new aerodynamic parts aimed at improving their car's performance at the first race of the season in Bahrain on 14 March.
Hulkenberg set the time as part of what looked like a simulation of a qualifying run, and said he was optimistic that Williams could put on a good showing in Bahrain.
"A fastest lap could be possible but I'm not sure about a podium," the German said.
Hulkenberg narrowly deposed Alonso's Ferrari for fastest time of the day
"Unlike last year I hope we can carry forward our Friday pace into qualifying and the race.
"We have a good baseline with this car and the engine and my goal is to score many, many points."
Unlike Hulkenberg, who set his fastest lap on one short run, Alonso's was set during a number of formidable-looking runs, in which he produced a set of consistently quick times around the same pace as his fastest lap time.
Alonso's fastest lap was more than 0.7secs quicker than Webber's, in a similar series of runs, on Thursday.
The Spaniard also completed a race simulation run in the afternoon session, with a fastest lap of 1:21.669.
That maintains the impression the Italian team have given throughout winter testing, that they are in the best shape ahead of the new season.
It is, though, difficult to make accurate predictions from testing, as it is impossible to know the fuel loads the teams are running.
These - along with ambient temperature and other factors - can have a dramatic effect on performance.
I don't think we have to fear reliability problems
Red Bull driver
Equally, McLaren and Mercedes, the other two top teams, do not yet appear to have done similar low-fuel runs to those by Webber and Alonso.
"We are still in some doubts about how quick we are until we get to Bahrain," said Alonso, who has finished his winter testing programme, "but we are optimistic.
"We will arrive in Bahrain with many things done and happy with the car in all conditions.
"Hopefully I can fight for the championship but we have not done the first race yet.
"We spoke in pre-season about McLaren, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull being the strongest teams and winter testing has confirmed this. But it's only February so there are still months to work hard ahead for the team."
Alonso, who hands the car over to team-mate Felipe Massa for the final two days of the test, said Ferrari would have some updates in Bahrain that will not have been tested in Barcelona.
McLaren have a big package of new parts to fit to the car overnight to try out on Saturday, when Jenson Button will take over from Hamilton, who drives again on the final day of the test, Sunday.
That will put the McLaren into pretty much the specification in which it will race in Bahrain.
Red Bull are also expected to have some new parts on their car on Saturday.
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, whose team-mate Mark Webber set the fastest time of the first day of the test, was fifth fastest, just dipping under the Australian's best lap with a 1:21.258.
Like Webber, the German stopped out on the track, something of a recurring theme for Red Bull this pre-season.
But Vettel said: "Sometimes it's normal to stop rather than risk doing damage, whereas in a race you obviously try to push it. I don't think we have to fear reliability problems."
Mercedes will wait until Bahrain to introduce their definitive aerodynamic package - which will include a modified diffuser, a crucial part that defines airflow at the back of the car and has a huge role in producing downforce.
Schumacher, who is returning to F1 this year after three years in retirement, said: "We had a positive day but it was quite stop-start with some changes on the car and then the red flags towards the end of the day.
"We are working hard and even if the programme doesn't run as smoothly as we would have liked, there is much more to come from the team both here and in Bahrain."
The test at the Circuit de Catalunya continues over the weekend.
Fastest times from second day of Barcelona test:
1. Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth 1m20.614s
2. Fernando Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 1m20.637s (+0.023)
3. Pedro de la Rosa (Spa) Sauber-Ferrari 1m20.973s (+0.359)
4. Vitantonio Liuzzi (Ita) Force India-Mercedes 1m21.056s (+0.442)
5. Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1m21.258s (+0.644)
6. Jaime Alguersuari (Spa) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m21.571s (+0.957)
7. Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1m21.689s (+1.075)
8. Lewis Hamilton (GB McLaren-Mercedes 1m22.152s (+1.538)
9. Robert Kubica (Pol) Renault 1m24.912s (+4.298)
10. Jarno Trulli (Ita) Lotus-Cosworth 1m25.524s (+4.910)
11. Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth 1m25.942s (+5.328)