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Fernando Alonso will start his home Spanish Grand Prix as Formula One championship leader for the third year in a row this weekend but with more of a fight on his hands than ever.
The double world champion won comfortably enough last season at the Circuit de Catalunya but this time, tied on 22 points with McLaren team mate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, the 25-year-old faces a tough afternoon.
Urged on by what is likely to be a record sell-out crowd, the local hero should be favourite in his first home appearance in McLaren colours since leaving Renault last year.
But a lot will depend on just how much his Mercedes-powered team and rivals Ferrari have developed their cars since the last grand prix in Bahrain four weeks ago.
The first race of the European season, after three rounds in Asia and the Middle East won by three different drivers, should provide a clear indication of who has the upper hand.
Ferrari won in Australia with Raikkonen and in Bahrain with Brazilian Felipe Massa while Alonso led Hamilton in an unexpected McLaren one-two in Malaysia.
McLaren (44) are five points clear of Ferrari in the constructors' standings, with BMW (18) a distant third but still with more points than all the remaining eight teams together.
The top two were sounding confident after testing in Barcelona last week, with Ferrari quickest on all but the last day at a circuit that has been remodelled since last year with a chicane replacing the last two quick curves.
"More than ever I can't wait to get back on track, also because the test session at the Circuit de Catalunya was really positive," Raikkonen said on the Ferrari Web site (www.ferrariworld.com).
"We were able to improve the F2007 considerably, because the new components work really well and the car is now much closer to my style of driving," added the Finn, winner in Spain with McLaren in 2005.
"I'm much more optimistic now. We can attack the best way possible."
Massa, picking up speed after a slow start to the season, will be putting the pressure on his team mate while Alonso faces a similar challenge from 22-year-old rookie Hamilton in a four-way battle.
Beaten by the Briton in Bahrain, where Hamilton finished second while the Spaniard could manage only fifth, the champion will be eager to reassert himself and there is no better place for that than Spain.
"If I had to choose just one race to win it will always be the Spanish Grand Prix," Alonso said in an interview released by McLaren.
"I think no doubt for any racing driver to race at their home circuit is always something special and something that you look forward to, and for me it is exactly the same," he added.
Alonso is not used to being beaten by his team mates, eclipsing Italian Giancarlo Fisichella at now-struggling champions Renault, but Hamilton is in awe of nobody.
Already the first driver to appear on the podium in his first three races, the Briton is now aiming higher.
"I never go with expectations, I go with a target. That is to be at the front, and the ultimate aim to win, which is the mentality I have always gone racing with," he said when asked about his expectations for the weekend.
Last year, in the GP2 support series that he ultimately dominated, Hamilton finished second.
"I hope this year I can do one step better," he said.
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