Posted: Friday May 6, 2005 1:45PM; Updated: Friday May 6, 2005 1:45PM
BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) -- Championship leader Fernando Alonso stayed out of the limelight on Friday ahead of a home Spanish Grand Prix that promises another epic battle with Ferrari's Michael Schumacher.
After getting used to empty stands on Friday mornings so far this season, Formula One awoke to Alonsomania at the Circuit de Catalunya.
Opening practice saw thousands of fans filling the main grandstand, a far more impressive turnout than the sparse crowd on race day at what turned out to be a thrilling San Marino Grand Prix at Imola two weeks ago.
Tickets have long been sold out for Sunday's race with Spaniards eager to witness another duel between Alonso, increasingly seen as Schumacher's heir apparent, and the seven-times world champion.
Schumacher is chasing his seventh Spanish Grand Prix victory and a record-equalling fifth in a row at the Barcelona circuit where he has never finished out of the points in 14 appearances.
Renault's Alonso is hoping to become the first Spaniard to win his home race after already becoming the first to lead the championship.
The two men's battle at Imola provided an enthralling contest, Schumacher harrying Alonso all the way to the finish line as the Spaniard held his nerve with a controlled and defensive drive under pressure.
Yet on Friday, the 23-year-old Alonso, who has won the last three races and scored twice as many points as his nearest rivals, was happy to let compatriot Pedro de la Rosa take centre stage.
Alonso did not complete a timed lap in first practice, a regular occurrence for him this season as teams seek to conserve engines that must last for two races.
There was little need for the Spaniard to put in the laps, despite the crowds chanting his name, since all the teams have tested regularly at the circuit north of Barcelona and have all the data they need already.
McLaren test driver De la Rosa, used to pounding around the deserted track during the winter months, seized his chance to set the fastest lap of one minute 15.675 seconds.
Austrian Christien Klien, another man who will not race on Sunday, was second quickest for Red Bull.
On a largely meaningless morning, Germany's Nick Heidfeld was third quickest knowing already that he will lose 10 places on the starting grid because his Williams needs an unscheduled engine change to fix an exhaust valve defect.
Schumacher's time was 1.899 seconds slower than De la Rosa.
McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, on pole at Imola and race leader before a driveshaft failure, was fifth quickest.
The notable absence was Briton Jenson Button, whose BAR team have been suspended for two races by the International Automobile Federation (FIA) for fuel and weight irregularities at Imola.
The local fans, many clad in blue Renault caps and shirts, could be glad of that as Button represented a real challenge to their hero after setting an unofficial track record in recent testing and finishing third at Imola.