Hamilton fastest at Monza

Monza (Italy): McLaren`s Lewis Hamilton sounded confident after putting controversy behind him and lapping fastest in Italian Grand Prix practice on Friday.

The 2008 Formula One champion, who faced strong criticism after crashing out of the previous race in Belgium, roared around the fastest track on the calendar with a best time of one minute 23.865 seconds in the morning session.

Red Bull`s reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, who has a 92 point lead after 12 of the 19 races, was quickest in the afternoon in 1:24.010 with Hamilton second and a mere 0.036 slower.

"I think we`re slightly stronger than the Ferraris," said Hamilton.

"At the end of P2 (second practice), the Red Bulls were looking pretty strong but I`m pretty sure they weren`t on the same fuel load as us, which is encouraging."

Hamilton`s team mate Jenson Button, the 2009 champion for Brawn, was second and seventh respectively in the two sessions.

Champions Red Bull looked as competitive as ever, despite describing the track as their weakest, with Australian Mark Webber fourth in the morning behind Vettel and sixth after lunch.

Red Bull have never finished on the Monza podium, although Vettel won with sister team Toro Rosso in 2008.

"It`s a track that traditionally doesn`t suit us, but we were happy with the car today," said Vettel.

"McLaren look very quick in particular and the ones to beat this weekend, but it`s very difficult to judge on a Friday as so many factors are involved."

With the battle lines seemingly drawn between McLaren and Red Bull, Ferrari made a slow start to the last Friday practice of the European season but ended the afternoon on a stronger note.

Brazilian Felipe Massa was fourth while team mate Fernando Alonso, who delighted the home fans with a win from pole last year, was fifth.

"I think we lack a bit of performance compared to the best, even if there are still the same unknowns relating to Fridays, especially those linked to fuel loads," said Alonso.

"It would be nice to repeat last year`s performance, but we know that will be very difficult. You can`t create a miracle in two weeks."

Former Ferrari ace Michael Schumacher, still a favourite of the tifosi despite now racing for Mercedes at the age of 42, was third on the afternoon timesheets after going off at Parabolica without hitting the wall in the first session.

His enduring popularity was evident from the banners around the circuit.

"Michael, we always wish you well," declared one sheet, written in Ferrari red lettering, festooned from the railings of the main grandstand.

"It`s nice to feel what comes across from the fans, it reminds me of being at my home races," commented Schumacher.

Indian test and reserve driver Karun Chandhok replaced Italian Jarno Trulli at Team Lotus in the day`s opening session while Germany`s Nico Hulkenberg was in Paul Di Resta`s Force India.

Toro Rosso`s Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi crashed into the barriers at Parabolica in the afternoon.

Bureau Report

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