Frenchman Romain Grosjean topped the times in Saturday’s rain-hit third and final free practice session ahead of Sunday’s Rolex Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.
The Lotus driver, victim of many opening-lap collisions last year, demonstrated competitive speed in the opening 15 minutes of dry running before a downpour halted the action and left the teams with a 25-minute window to test their cars in the wet conditions.
Grosjean was fastest ahead of the two Ferraris of two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso and Brazilian Felipe Massa with Briton Paul Di Resta fourth-fastest for the Force India team.
Defending triple World Champion German Sebastian Vettel was 12th for Red Bull after pulling up with electronics problems late in the session. But the two-time Melbourne winner had already shown impressive speed after switching to intermediate tyres.
Australians Daniel Ricciardo of Toro Rosso and Mark Webber of Red Bull wound up sixth and 13th but, on a day of blustery wind and rainstorms, this was no guide to expectations for the qualifying session or Sunday’s race.
Webber was among the first out and clocked an early fastest lap of 1: 31.171 in his Red Bull. Six minutes later, the Ferraris led by Fernando Alonso trimmed that to 1:27.537 and then, via Felipe Massa, to 1:27.407. As Alonso cut that back to 1:27.000, it was clear that the serious work had started ahead of the forecast rainfall.
Grosjean’s Lotus then clocked 1:26.929 before gusty winds preceded the downpour and a rush to the pits for rain tyres. At that time, Lewis Hamilton was left stranded at the end of the time-screens without a lap in anger.
The changed conditions brought with them a dramatic drop in track temperature to 22 degrees and, in turn, the prospect of a rain-affected race on Sunday that could lift the hopes of teams like McLaren who struggled on Friday.
French newcomer Jules Bianchi of Marussia tested the new limits of adhesion with an off-circuit excursion across the grass at Turn 14 before a hint of a dry line began to emerge.
Webber, like Vettel, also abandoned the blue-walled ‘wet’ tyres to set a new standard of pace in the low 1:40’s before rival front-runners trimmed that by two seconds in the demanding conditions.
FP1: Vettel (Red Bull Renault) 1:27.211
FP2: Vettel (Red Bull Renault) 1:25.908
FP3: Grosjean (Lotus Renault 1:26.929