Robert Kubica underlined Renault's potential for points in this weekend's Australian Grand Prix by posting the fastest time in the opening 90-minute practice session at Albert Park.
While few expect the Pole to remain as pacesetter this weekend, much as no-one expected Adrian Sutil to do likewise after setting the pace on Friday morning in Bahrain, Kubica's performance at least confirmed the regie
's strong start to a season in which it needs to emerge from the shadows of 2008-09.
In a session twice interrupted by incidents involving Kamui Kobayashi and Sauber, Kubica leapt to the top of the times in the closing stages, posting a 1min 26.927secs lap to be the only driver ducking under the 1min 27secs mark. The former BMW Sauber driver ended the session a shade under two-tenths clear of his nearest rival as all drivers began picking up pace as the parkland track rubbered in.
Nico Rosberg eventually emerged in second spot, clocking 1min 27.126secs in his Mercedes to deny early pacesetters Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in their similarly-powered McLarens. While team-mate Michael Schumacher again took time to re-acclimatise to one of his favourite venues ahead of his 250th grand prix start - the German wound up twelfth fastest - Rosberg gradually worked his way up the order, slipping ahead of Button the waning moments.
The reigning world champion had enjoyed a long spell in P1, but ultimately finished up half a second adrift of Kubica and only narrowly ahead of Ferrari's Felipe Massa. The two McLarens appeared more competitive this time out, riding the Melbourne kerbs particularly well, although Hamilton - who had topped the times at the start of the session - dropped to seventh overall by the end, as Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso both moved ahead of him late on.
The top ten was completed by Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi, Kubica's Renault team-mate Vitaly Petrov - despite the Russian enduring a lurid spin over the kerbs - and Force India's Tonio Liuzzi. The Italian was Force India's benchmark in the session, as Sutil made way for reserve driver Paul di Resta to make his grand prix weekend debut, but the Scot did well enough to lap just over three-tenths slower than Liuzzi - and ahead of Schumacher.
The two red flags were caused by what appeared to be front wing failures on Kobayashi's Sauber C29. The first incident was reportedly precipitated by the Japanese rookie clipping a marker board, but the second saw the wing fold under the car on his out-lap, sending Kobayashi into the run-off area at turn three. Kobayashi ended the session only 18th fastest as the FIA's Jo Bauer paid a visit to the Sauber pit to check on the cause of the failure.
It wasn't a good morning for Sauber as Pedro de la Rosa was also hit by problems, slowing to a halt on track late on, and winding up 15th fastest. The Swiss team was not alone, however, as Jarno Trulli's Lotus and Timo Glock's Virgin both reportedly suffered hydraulic problems that cost them track time. Trulli's team-mate Heikki Kovalainen also pulled off after the chequered flag appeared, and had to wait to be returned to the pit-lane.
Home hero Mark Webber opted for a trip down the escape road at one point, while there were incidents for both HRT drivers. Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok - who managed an improved 43 laps between them - finished the session in 22nd and 23rd spots respectively, sandwiched between the Virgin runners, while Trulli and Kovalainen again claimed new team spoils for Lotus.