Jenson Button led a McLaren 1-2 in opening practice for the Qantas Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on Friday afternoon.
The 2009 world champion, winner in Melbourne in 2009 and 2010, produced a searing late run in the final 10 minutes of the 90-minute session to top the timesheets with a lap of 1min 27.560secs.
Button’s teammate Lewis Hamilton was second, 0.245secs behind his compatriot, while Michael Schumacher led for a significant portion of the session before finishing third for Mercedes, six-tenths of a second slower than Button.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso survived a lurid moment at Turn 16 coming onto the start-finish straight on his final lap of the session to finish fourth, while Red Bull’s Mark Webber was fifth, nine-tenths off Button’s pace.
Webber’s compatriot Daniel Ricciardo had an impressive start to his first home Grand Prix for Scuderia Toro Rosso, finishing seventh.
Reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel was just 11th for Red Bull after being baulked on what looked to be his quickest lap of the session by Marussia rookie Charles Pic in the final frantic minutes, while returning 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen was ninth for Lotus after missing much of the session as the team fixed the steering rack on his car.
The first session of the season began on a track slick with rain after a midday shower, and it was Ricciardo and French rookie teammate Jean-Eric Vergne who entertained the fans by swapping top times in the opening half-hour.
Just four cars set a lap time in the opening 30 minutes, while HRT’s difficult testing campaign carried over into the season proper when Narain Karthikeyan’s car ground to a halt at Turn 13 with oil pressure problems before the Indian could complete a lap.
Mercedes made their move in the early stages of the second half of the session, Schumacher going fastest of all on his second lap on the medium-spec Pirelli tyre as the drivers ventured out on slick rubber for the first time.
McLaren were inconspicuous until the final 15 minutes, where Hamilton and then Button made their charge on a drying track.
Button took top spot from Schumacher with 10 minutes remaining and then lowered his time on three consecutive laps, while Hamilton settled into second on his 14th and final lap of the session.
Ferrari’s Felipe Massa began the season as he ended 2011: under pressure after ending his session in the gravel trap at Turn 9 when he misjudged his braking point and put two wheels on the wet grass. The Brazilian ended the session in 18th place.
Neither HRT entry managed to record a time, with Karthikeyan’s teammate Pedro de la Rosa failing to make it out on track as the embattled team continued to work on his car after it belatedly passed scrutineering on Friday morning.
A second 90-minute Formula One practice session will take place at Albert Park at 4.30pm on Friday afternoon.