Fernando Alonso leads Lewis Hamilton in Valencia practice

By Sarah HoltBBC Sport in Valencia

Ferrari's Fernando Alonso edged out his McLaren and Red Bull rivals to lead the field in Friday practice for the European Grand Prix in Valencia.

The Spaniard made an error on his fastest lap but beat Hamilton by 0.227 seconds, with Red Bull's championship leader Sebastian Vettel third.

Michael Schumacher's Mercedes was fourth ahead of Felipe Massa's Ferrari and Jenson Button's McLaren.

The times raised hopes qualifying on Saturday will be a close contest.

"I've just got a feeling we won't see a Red Bull on pole this weekend," said BBC 5 Live F1 commentator David Croft.

"They have played down the change in the rules on engine mapping [banning altering settings between qualifying and the race] but you get a feeling that the pecking order might change a little bit."

The thrilling Canadian Grand Prix has given fresh hope that, despite Red Bull's dominance, the championship is by no means settled with just seven races gone.

Vettel has a 60-point advantage over Button in the title hunt, with 25 points for a race win, but Red Bull's closest rivals McLaren and Ferrari trialled new parts in Valencia in an attempt to gain ground.

The Italian team tried out an updated rear suspension and a modified front wing, which was split into two front tiers instead of three.

Alonso had conceded on arrival in Valencia that Ferrari were having a "very bad season," but the Spanish double world champion set the pace on Friday with a fastest lap of one minute 37.968secs despite locking his tyres, and producing a plume of smoke in the process, going into the final corner.

It is the third consecutive time that the Spaniard has topped Friday practice but Alonso conceded that he had struggled to carry that momentum forward in qualifying, with his best grid position coming in Canada when he qualified second.

"We had a smooth Friday but how competitive we are, I don't think we can have an idea," Alonso said.

"We have been in first position on Friday in some races and then on Saturday Red Bull are dominant and McLaren are in front of us.

"It will be very tough for us to be in front [but] we are optimistic and will give 100%."

McLaren ran with new front-wing end-plates and daubed 'flo-viz' paint over a modified rear wing to see if the alteration generated any extra downforce.

Hamilton, who had shrugged off suggestions that he needed to make amends for two disappointing races in Valencia, was just 0.227 seconds shy of Alonso's leading time.

"It's been an interesting day," said the McLaren driver. "We brought a new medium tyre here which has been very difficult for us to switch on. Once we put the option tyre on we made improvements to our pace.

"You go from one tyre where the car is sliding all over the place to another tyre when you have grip so now we have to think about how we can switch on the prime tyre. We were both fighting the car quite a lot I think.

"It looks like we're not so bad pace wise. It looked very tight up front but we're definitely in the fight."

Button complained about a lack of rear grip during practice, adding that despite making changes to the set-up of the car it still had "exactly the same high-speed (behaviour) as it had before".

The Englishman, who drove brilliantly to claim his first victory of the season last time out in Canada, was half a second off the pace.

Mercedes remained in the mix with Schumacher just 0.347secs off Alonso's leading time and team-mate Nico Rosberg eighth.

Both Renault drivers looked comfortable on track and Nick Heidfeld was a second slower than Alonso in ninth just ahead of team-mate Vitaly Petrov.

However, the F1 paddock is also wondering if two new directives from F1's governing body, the FIA, will narrow Red Bull's advantage in the coming races.

The FIA wrote to the teams before the European Grand Prix to explain that they will no longer be able to change their engine maps - how the engine governs the car's fuel usage - between qualifying and the race.

At the next race at Silverstone on 10 July, the use of so-called off-throttle blowing of diffusers, which help to increase downforce by blowing hot gasses over the rear of the car's floor while the driver is not pressing the accelerate, will be banned.

Vettel said that he had used the Silverstone specification in first practice and joked that the rules change would see Red Bull lose five seconds.

The world champion, who led the timings for much of the second session and finished just 0.297secs adrift of Alonso's benchmark, said: "It [the ban on off-throttle blowing of diffusers] will affect everyone but I don't see us suffering more than other people to be honest. We have nothing to be afraid of.

"Sometimes you try different things and I think there were no secrets today.

"If you are not in the top five or top 10 you are running a different programme than the others, and that was [what we did] this morning.

"But this afternoon we were more or less on the same page as the rest.

"I had a good feeling - much better than in the morning - but it looks very tight."

The German's team-mate Mark Webber, who was unscathed during a terrifying upside-down crash in Valencia last season, had set the pace in the morning but finished seventh fastest in the second session.

Scot Paul di Resta had just 10 minutes' running for Force India after reserve Nico Hulkenberg crashed in the morning.

The German was the only driver to fall foul of the 'green' track, hitting the wall after he lost control of the rear.

Hulkenberg described the incident as "unfortunate" and "costly" and Di Resta will probably agree as he lost valuable time on a track he has never raced competitively on.

Di Resta managed to record the 14th fastest time.

Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari also watched proceedings from the garage as his Toro Rosso was stranded by unresolved mechanical problems.