Michael Schumacher has topped the timesheets for only the second time in a Formula One session in his comeback for Mercedes after a frantic finish to second practice for the Qantas Australian Grand Prix on Friday afternoon.
The seven-time world champion left it to his 16th and final lap of the session after the chequered flag had fallen to set his benchmark time of 1min 29.183secs, which edged compatriot Nico Hulkenberg of Force India by 0.109secs.
The two Germans emerged at the top from the frenetic final few minutes of a rain-affected session after half-a-dozen drivers took turns at the head of the timesheets in the latter stages.
Behind Hulkenberg was Sauber’s Sergio Perez in third, while Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso was fourth, 1.158secs behind Schumacher.
Perez’s teammate Kamui Kobayashi was fifth in a promising display for the Swiss team, and the Japanese provided the most thrilling moment of the 90-minute session when he miraculously kept the Sauber out of the wall exiting Turn 16 after sliding across the track.
Hulkenberg’s teammate Paul di Resta was sixth after leading the field on two occasions in the final stages, while Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull rounded out the top 10.
Mark Webber was one driver to lose out in the final moments, the Australian unable to find clear track on his last two flying laps to end up 11th for Red Bull. Compatriot Daniel Ricciardo was 21st for Toro Rosso, one-tenth of a second slower than debutant teammate Jean-Eric Vergne.
The dramatic end to the session was in complete contrast to the start, with drivers reluctant to take to the track in the early stages after a severe rainstorm lashed the Albert Park circuit.
Alonso was the first driver to venture out on intermediate tyres at the half-hour mark, and the two-time world champion was immediately rewarded with top spot.
The sun broke through in the second half of the session, with Schumacher immediately showing Mercedes’ optimism for this first weekend of the season was well-founded with his first flying lap after 45 minutes had elapsed. Perez then took over at the front and held P1 for some time as teams waited to see if the weather would clear for the last 15 minutes.
Vettel was the first driver to try the faster, softer rubber as the session came to a close, and took top spot with 14 minutes to go, a move that triggered a frenzy of activity in the pit lane.
Hulkenberg had two attempts at top spot thwarted by traffic in the final sector before taking top spot with a 1:29.292 with 90 seconds remaining, but Schumacher left it as late as possible to depose his countryman.
A third and final Formula One practice session will take place at 2pm on Saturday.