A surprise performance boost by Renault that managed to split the Ferraris in second practice may spell an interesting Grand Prix on Sunday.
BMW are also looking strong on a day that saw McLaren performing roughly as expected during the first session but falling way down the field in the second.
On the first run out the Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa put in the fastest times followed by Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren, around half a second down on the world champion.
BMW’s Robert Kubica was around four-tenths of a second behind him with Heikki Kovalainen and Fernando Alonso fifth and sixth.
Raikkonen also led from the front in the second session. But Renault’s Nelson A Piquet was a surprise second just 0.084 seconds behind him with team-mate Alonso leaving a gap of a mere 0.013.
Next in line were Williams’ Kazuki Nakajima followed by Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Hamilton was down in 11th, nearly eight tenths of a second behind the leader, and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen could not manage better than 16th.
Of course, practice times are not necessarily any kind of guide to race performance, but this cannot have been what McLaren had in mind.
Going into the race weekend, Lewis Hamilton said: “I feel we have a competitive package at the track; the car seems to work quite well.
“We have a range of new components coming on board for this race which we tested this week and had some positive results, but we are not alone in doing this.
“The Circuit de Catalunya is a great track; we can’t ever lose it from the calendar. It always sees competitive racing and there are so many enthusiastic fans there all the time which makes for a great atmosphere.”
He said the key challenges at the circuit would include coming to terms with alterations made since last year’s race and maintaining balance through its variety of corners.
“Turn Two is a big corner and it provides a good challenge from both a driving and set-up perspective.
“With the end of the circuit now being tightened up a fair amount we have got to get that balance so we will get good high speed corner performance and traction coming out of the low speed corners.
“There are a range of different challenges and technically it is an interesting circuit.”
McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh added: “The Spanish Grand Prix sees us entering the European season and Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, along with all the other teams, will be in Barcelona with significant upgrade packages on the cars.
“The cars remain relatively consistent over the course of the fly away races and this race weekend is the first opportunity to understand how we have moved forward with performance and developed the MP4-23 in comparison with our primary competitors.
“We are confident that we have improved the performance of the car, but this week’s test was not an accurate indicator of performance, so we will need to wait for the race to establish how the MP4-23 will fare.”
David Coulthard for Red Bull was easily in the top third to half of the field in both of today’s practice sessions, suggesting the possibility of a positive race weekend ahead. Team-mate Mark Webber was a few places down on him in the first session, and outperformed him in the second.
In its race preview the Red Bull team said: “After three hectic races, it was time for the test teams to make their first appearance of the season, with Red Bull Racing… running here last week. David Coulthard and Mark Webber both got two days behind the wheel.
“Apart from trying prototype slick tyres for 2009, the main evaluation was of new aerodynamic components; all part of the on-going development programme. Results were positive, so these new bits will be on the car for the Grand Prix.”
Jenson Button for Honda had an unassuming practice, coming tenth in the first session and 15th in the second.
Speaking beforehand in his team’s race preview, he said: “The key to a really quick lap is having a car with good downforce; you need to feel confident when you commit to the very high speed corners.
“Overtaking can be a real challenge here and one of the best opportunities is going into the first corner after the start. You can squeeze by there once the race has settled down but it is very difficult. The chicane can also be tricky as it is extremely slippery and so very slow.
“One little mistake could cost you a lot of time there.”
Team principal Ross Brawn added: “The team has made good progress at each race so far this season, gaining in confidence and performing better on each occasion.
“Our recent development push on the RA108 with a new aerodynamic package, suspension modifications and driveability improvements showed pleasing results during the four-day test this week.
“I expect these developments to add to our competitiveness and improve our points-scoring potential at the Spanish Grand Prix and the races to follow.”
It’s been a torrid few days for Anthony Davidson at Super Aguri with the British driver not even sure if he’d have a job by Sunday evening.
However, it looks probable that the team will race, although whether it will make it any further through the 2008 championship is another story.
Perhaps inevitably, given everything going on off the racetrack, the Aguri cars could only manage to bring up the rear in both practice sessions. No race preview has been issued.