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SHANGHAI (AP) — Ferrari s Fernando Alonso set the pace in the first practice session at the Chinese Grand Prix on Friday, indicating the struggling team could emerge as a challenger to dominant Mercedes in Sunday s race.

Alonso set a best time of 1 minute, 39.783 seconds around the Shanghai International Circuit as Ferrari s new team principal, Marco Mattiacci arrived at the paddock to take charge.

Alonso was nearly 0.4 seconds faster than Mercedes Nico Rosberg in second and nearly a second faster than Red Bull s Daniel Ricciardo in third.

Mercedes has won all three races to start the season, with Lewis Hamilton taking two and Rosberg one. Only an engine problem on Hamilton s car in the opening race in Australia has prevented three successive one-two finishes.

Alonso, meanwhile, has managed no better than a pair of fourth-place finishes as the team struggles to adjust to the sport s switch to new V6 turbo hybrid engines and fuel-saving regulations.

The slow start to the season prompted Ferrari to abruptly part ways with team principal Stefano Domenicali after six years, replacing him with Mattiacci, formerly president of Ferrari North America.

Engineering director Pat Fry lowered expectations coming into the Chinese Grand Prix, saying on Ferrari s website the short-term goal would be to try to be F1 s second-best team.

Hamilton was eighth-fastest in Friday s practice, just ahead of four-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull in ninth.

Raikkonen did not set a timed lap Friday morning due to a mechanical problem with his car.

McLaren drivers Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen were fourth and sixth, respectively, while Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg was fifth-fastest.

Jean-Eric Vergne of Toro Rosso was seventh and Felipe Massa of Williams was 10th.

Heavy smog had hampered visibility at the Shanghai International Circuit on Thursday, but conditions were clear for Friday s practice rounds. Rain and cool temperatures were forecast for Saturday s qualifying session.

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