Mark Webber made the most of a drying Marina Bay circuit to pip surprise package Michael Schumacher to fastest time in the opening free practice session for this weekend's Singapore Grand Prix.
The Australian had hit traffic on his previous runs, but had one last throw of the dice as the chequered flag flew and made it count as he clocked 1min 54.589secs to deny Schumacher by just over a tenth of a second. The German, who has struggled for pace on his return to the top flight, had, until that moment, looked to be on course to top the times after vaulting past countryman Sebastian Vettel in the other Red Bull as a damp but drying circuit made the 90 minutes difficult to call.
For the first time on an F1 weekend in Singapore, rain had caused question marks, not only for those looking to make predictions, but also for the teams themselves. With wet patches still clearly visible around the circuit, there were few early takers for track time, allowing the likes of Timo Glock and Kamui Kobayashi to set the pace for Virgin and Sauber respectively, before Jaime Alguersuari moved Toro Rosso to top spot.
Having started in daylight, it was dark before the session got underway in earnest, with the final 30 minutes seeing all 24 cars taking to the track, and the surface drying more and more. While the order changed continuously, title contenders Jenson Button and Vettel both took turns at its head, before Adrian Sutil showed his intention of bouncing back after a disappointing Italian Grand Prix by snatching P1 for Force India. Schumacher then took over at the top, before Webber produced his last-gasp effort to steal the bragging rights over lunch.... or dinner, as the case may be.
Behind Schumacher, Sutil responded to Vettel's late assault to reclaim third, while Alguersuari kept Toro Rosso in the hunt by pipping Button for fifth, although the Spaniard and his Toro Rosso team will be among the first to admit that the order is unlikely to be representative of the weekend as whole given the conditions. The second Force India of Tonio Liuzzi was seventh, ahead of Sebastien Buemi's STR and the Renaults of Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov.
Missing, somewhat conspicuously, from the top ten, were the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, the Mercedes of track specialist Nico Rosberg and the McLaren of erstwhile points leader Lewis Hamilton. Alonso proved to be best of the quartet, in eleventh place, while Rosberg moved up the order late on to eventually secure 14th, behind the Saubers of Kobayashi and returnee Nick Heidfeld.
Hamilton and Massa, meanwhile, was down in 18th and 19th, beaten by the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen amongst others, but comfortably ahead of Virgin drivers Glock and Jerome d'Ambrosio, who made his debut with the Dinnington equipe
in 21st position. Also returning to the fray was Christian Klien, a late replacement for the supposedly sick Sakon Yamamoto at HRT, but the Austrian proved to be some eight seconds off the pace and 23rd overall, ahead only of the second Lotus of Fairuz Fauzy.