The uncertainty over Formula One's pecking order that arose in pre-season testing continued into the first official session of the new season as Adrian Sutil put Force India at the top of the timesheets in Bahrain.
While the Silverstone-based team enjoyed a strong end to 2009, and is expected to feature in the battle for points this season, few would expect either Sutil or team-mate Tonio Liuzzi to feature at the top of the times when their rivals finally get round to running their fastest specs. However, the German will enjoy his moment in the spotlight after clocking a 1min 56.583secs lap around the extended Bahrain International Circuit layout.
Sutil set his benchmark time midway through the 90-minute session, but was able to remain on top of the pile as the majority of the field opted to concentrate on programmes that mitigated against matching his pace. Fernando Alonso, in his first grand prix weekend with Ferrari, eventually came closest to matching the Force India pilot, clocking 1min 56.766secs later in the session, but the order remained as inconclusive as it had during four tests in Spain.
Behind Alonso, Robert Kubica claimed third spot for Renault, although the four-tenths gap underlined the diversity of programmes being followed, while the Spaniard's Ferrari team-mate, Felipe Massa, and world champion Jenson Button rounded out the top five in close contention with Kubica.
Button and new McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton had both taken early possession of fastest time, and ended up a tenth apart in fifth and sixth respectively, while Liuzzi hinted that Force India could be more than a midfield in Bahrain with seventh spot, ahead of Mercedes' Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher, who sandwiched Red Bull's Mark Webber in ninth. The Australian and, in particular, team-mate Sebastian Vettel are expected to head the battle for pole this weekend, so the German's 13th place - behind Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari, on his first visit to Sakhir, and Williams rookie Nico Hulkenberg - only serves to underline the unpredictable nature of the times.
Hulkenberg proved to be the fastest of the eight Cosworth-powered cars present in Bahrain, outpacing not only Williams team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who was 15th overall, but also the three new teams on the grid, who all featured at the tail of the field with differing fortunes.
Timo Glock was the fastest of the sextet, but was 2.3secs slower than the man immediately ahead of him, Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi, and a massive 7.1secs off the ultimate pace. The German was followed by the two Lotus drivers, with Heikki Kovalainen edging Jarno Trulli as both just made it under the hypothetical 107 per cent mark that would render slow runners as non-qualifiers in previous seasons.
Lotus at least had both of its cars setting times, where Glock's Virgin team-mate Lucas di Grassi and both HRT runners, Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok, failed to complete a flying lap. Senna only emerged with around 20 minutes of the session remaining, while his fellow rookie team-mate is hoping that the team can complete work on the second car's hydraulics in time for him to see some action in FP2.