Fernando Alonso expected to slump even without clash

His team-mate Valtteri Bottas was second quickest.

The transformation 24 hours later was entirely unexpected, even for the fans still trekking to the Circuit de Catalunya out of loyalty to the double world champion who is still the only Spaniard to win a grand prix.

Alonso, who has half his $40m (£31.1m) salary paid by Honda, has had engine issues in three of four races.

Alonso suggested problems during Friday practice had shrouded the real potential of the vehicle, which features a significant upgrade package this weekend.

Vettel wasn't pleased coming in behind the Mercedes, and put the burden on himself to get more out of his auto that has given Mercedes its first real challenge in years.

"I don't think that 50 is enough", said Alonso when asked after qualifying if an extra 50bhp would allow him to be on pole. At the end of the day I felt a bit more comfortable.

Stoffel Vandoorne received McLaren's first grid penalty of the season in Russian Federation, after a failure on his vehicle in first practice, which Alonso described as "incredible".

The Spaniard has been dogged by problems in the opening four races of the season as McLaren and Honda have failed to give him a auto capable of competing. "I don't have 100 percent confidence", he said. "We executed qualifying well and I felt confident in the vehicle".

He spoke alongside team director Eric Boullier and Honda F1 boss Yusuke Hasegawa, both looking relieved to not have to again explain why their cars have taken a step back.

"It's clear that in 2017 he's not going to win any championships here, so he's thinking about where he can win races in 2018". With its rougher surface and tricky curves, the track gives slower cars like his McLaren a fighting chance.

"Now is a busy period and with the Indy 500 thing", he added, referring to his testing for McLaren-Honda-Andretti at Indianapolis.

McLaren are yet to score a point this term and Alonso hasn't finished a race.

The Spaniard who will skip the next Grand Prix in Monaco to participate in the 500-mile Indianapolis with a McLaren-Honda-Andretti vehicle, remains determined to race in F1 in 2018 despite his current ordeal.

"I have minus zero regrets about missing Monaco", he declared.

"My intention or first priority is to race here", Alonso stressed ahead of his home race.

  • Julie Sanders