Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso keep their cards close their chests at Barca

2012 title rivals third and fourth fastest on day one

By Mike Wise in Barcelona.   Last Updated: 20/02/13 8:59am

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Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso both gave little away on Tuesday evening when they were asked to assess their prospects for the coming season.

Formula 1's second pre-season test - the first of two to be held at the Circuit de Catalunya - was the first time last year's title protagonists had shared a track since Vettel pipped his rival in Brazil back in November.

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Just three points separated them last year and they started 2013 still - more or less - joined at the hip. On his first day behind the wheel of Ferrari's new F138, Alonso was third quickest, little more than one hundredth of a second faster than Vettel in fourth.

Similarly, they shared common ground when discussing Tuesday's chilly conditions in Barcelona: both said the temperatures - which struggled to reach 13 degrees Celsius - were too cold for their tyres and had compromised their programmes to a degree.

A discernible difference was etched - or rather wasn't - on the face of each driver, but it's difficult to judge body language with these two. Vettel invariably smiles while Alonso tends to reserve his for the top step of the podium.

In short, both were playing their cards close to their chests. But with the cold weather muddying the already murky picture of testing, it's all too easy to forgive them.

For his part, Vettel agreed with Mark Webber's reaction in Jerez - that Red Bull are in stronger shape than they were 12 months ago, principally because back then they were struggling to adapt having been reined in on their use of exhaust-blown diffuser technology.

"What we have here is more or less the same car as we had in Brazil, just another step forward. I think we stepped out at the last races last season, so we're much happier this year here than we were last year," he said.

"At this stage, I think we can be pretty happy with what we have."

Alonso, too, seemed pretty happy, although he stopped short of calling the F138 a step forward on the car he had at his disposal at Interlagos.

"The feeling with the car was okay, as expected more or less," the Spaniard told a packed media session comprising, in the main, of his countrymen. "It's a continuation of the Brazil car let's say: more or less the same feeling, the same seat, the same pedals, the same everything. So when I jump in the car, the performance should be the same as Brazil."

Alonso said it was difficult to judge any change in this year's car over its predecessor owing to a static set of rules.

"It's difficult to compare the cars: we should do one lap in last year's and one lap in this year's," he said. "The feeling with the car is that it's similar to drive. There's no big change in the rules. When you have big changes in the rules, from V10 to V8, from Michelin to Bridgestone, there is always a special first day in the car because there's many things to learn and many things come to you.

"But when there's a continuation of last year, the driver's feeling when you jump in the car is more or less similar to last year. I'm sure we'll be strong in Australia; we need to improve on what we did last year because obviously it was not enough. We were second and we want finish first."

Like Vettel, Alonso said his car is better than its predecessor was this time last year - little wonder, given Ferrari's efforts to turn the wayward F2012 into something approaching a competitive proposition during the course of last season.

The question now is whether, like has so often been the case in recent years, the Scuderia will be playing catch-up during the opening races. Alonso did more laps - 110 - than anyone on Tuesday and stressed that there were more such days to come.

"We have a lot of work to do in the next days, for the tyres, for the aerodynamics, for some new components, experimental things we have on the car," he said. "We'll keep doing a lot of mileage; in Jerez we had some mechanical problems especially with Pedro (de la Rosa). We lost one morning so we'll put some laps in at this test to prove the car is strong enough for racing."

Vettel, meanwhile, managed 66 laps in all - a full Spanish Grand Prix race distance - and before he hands over to Webber later in the week, it's reasonable to assume the World Champion might attempt a full race simulation.

"I'm quite happy with the car, with the balance. And quite a bit happier than where we started last year," he stressed with a smile.

Once again, then, there might be little to choose between the two of them on paper. But in trying to make sense of it all, there's already the suspicion that the current champions have their noses in front.

Alonso, who was not smiling, summed up the situation thus: "Our competitors are doing a very good job and it will be interesting. My only optimism about 2013 is that I fight for the Championship last year with a car that was two seconds off the pace in winter."

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