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Saturday preview: qualified optimism

“McLaren look quick, but with Ferrari you can never tell…” Mark Webber knows where the main opposition is as he bids to plant his Red Bull racer on the front row at Albert Park for the second time in a row.

Webber topped the first free practice session on Friday and joined last year’s ‘Big Five’ at the front of the second, but today is the day when things get really serious at the 2011 Formula One Qantas Australian Grand Prix.

“We’ve still got some work to do,” says Webber, and all 12 teams will take full advantage of the final hour-long practice session at 2pm before qualifying kicks off at 5pm.

“Nothing new yet but what would you expect?” asked Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso on Friday evening. “This morning Red Bull went well and in the afternoon it was McLaren’s turn, with us and Mercedes always in the mix, while Williams and Renault also seem competitive.”

The major question ahead of race weekend was how Pirelli’s tyres would stand up to their new challenge, but there was a note of cautious optimism from most drivers yesterday. It looks as if 20-25 laps on the harder compound and as many as 15 on the softer option could be the norm, but everyone is looking forward to the race and the pit stop pattern it throws up.

With respect to two-time World Champion Fernando, there WAS something new about Friday: a young man by the name of Perez in the top 10 for Sauber. The Mexican rookie impressed on and off the track, learning his way quickly in the cockpit and producing a polished performance in the day’s official press conference.

“I have to say it was really a good day for me,” said Perez, one of four newcomers in 2011. “Around here is quite different to what I was used to in testing…”

Qualifying will also be quite different  from Friday’s work, so watch for McLaren’s two former World Champions Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton trying to build on their pace in FP2, Alonso being as aggressively controlled as ever and Vettel and Webber trying to p rove they’re still the cream of the 2011 crop.

In V8 Supercar territory Saturday brings the second instalment of the Albert Park 400, with Jamie Whincup looking to make it two from two stars, while the day’s race action starts with the nostalgic sight and sound of the Formula 5000 Tasman Revival at 11.35.

Corbin Harris will be looking to skate away from his fellow-stars in the Lexus Celebrity Challenge’s first of two races, the European excellence of Porsche is on display in the Carrera Cup race two at 3.15pm, and Alan Moffat will revive wonderful memories with his Boss Mustang in a brief on-track demonstration run just after 4.

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