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, nearly 0.4 seconds faster than Mercedes' Nico Rosberg in second. Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo was third, nearly a full second behind Alonso.
Mercedes has won all three races to start the season, with Lewis Hamilton taking two and Rosberg one. Only a 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.
Hamilton was eighth-fastest in Friday's practice, just ahead of four-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull in ninth.
Ferrari has thus far been unable to keep pace with Mercedes following the sport's switch to new V6 turbo hybrid engines.
After Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen finished in ninth and 10th place at the Bahrain GP, respectively, Ferrari abruptly parted ways with team principal Stefano Domenicali, replacing him with Marco Mattiacci, formerly president of Ferrari North America.
Engineering director Pat Fry also seemed to lower 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.''
Raikkonen did not set a timed lap Friday morning due to a 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.