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Alonso back in Spain with championship lead, but race is wide open

Fernando Alonso arrives at the Spanish Grand Prix with a fight on his hands for the Formula One championship.

The two-time defending champion will line up on the Circuit de Catalunya on Sunday atop the driver's standings, just as he did in 2006 when he easily won his home race for the first time with Renault.

Now, the big difference is that the championship race is wide open. And Alonso is now driving for McLaren.

"There is no extra pressure. No one expected this situation coming into the first European race," Alonso said.

Alonso and McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton are tied with Ferrari's Kimi Raikonnen with 22 points after three races.

McLaren leads the constructors' standings with 44 points, five more than Ferrari.

Both teams arrive in Barcelona after four weeks of development that is unlikely to yield an advantage to either team.

"I think it is impossible this year (to open a gap over Ferrari) and we will see a very close fight all through the season," the 25-year-old Spaniard said.

Alonso led a McLaren 1-2 finish with Hamilton at the Malaysian Grand Prix last month. Despite following that up with a fifth-place finish in Bahrain, Alonso is pleased with the results of his MP4-22 car so far.

"I think it has done even more than I personally expected from the first three races," he said.

Raikonnen, who won in Barcelona with McLaren in 2005, believes Ferrari will be primed for the first European race of the season.

"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," the Finn said. "We can attack the best way possible."

Ferrari will be motivated knowing former driver Michael Schumacher will be in the pit lane this weekend. The seven-time world champion will be attending a race for the first time since his retirement from F1 last year.

"I'm very happy about it and he will surely be able to give us an extra boost and enthusiasm," Ferrari driver Felipe Massa said.

Massa sees Schumacher as part of the reason he is only five points behind the leaders after his win in Bahrain last month.

"The world title is my objective, and I think I have the car to win it," the Brazilian said.

Hamilton, who became the first rookie driver to begin with podium finishes in his first three races, will be looking to upstage his Spanish teammate and win his first F1 race in front of at least 130,000 fans.

"I don't feel any more pressure than I started with," Hamilton said. "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."

Hamilton finished second in Barcelona last year on his way to winning the GP2 title.

The track won't quite be as the 22-year-old Englishman will remember, with the last two bends being replaced by a chicane that flicks left then right to allow for more overtaking.

BMW Sauber is third in the constructors' standings with 18 points and driver Nick Heidfeld has earned points in each race. He is third with 15 points.

Practice is Friday and Saturday morning, with qualifying in the afternoon. Sunday's race has increased by six laps to 60 on the 4.627-kilometer (2.875-mile) circuit.

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