Mark Webber gave the Australian crowd assembled for the belated start to the 2011 F1 season just what it wanted to see as he claimed fastest time in the opening practice session on the streets of Melbourne's Albert Park.
The Red Bull Racing driver posted a best time of 1min 26.831secs to steal an early march on the field, with team-mate Sebastian Vettel confirming RBR's status as pre-season favourite by backing Webber up in second place. Three-tenths separated the two team-mates, with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in third place to underline Ferrari's expected role as nearest challenger to the Milton Keynes squad.
Even after the enforced two-week hiatus caused by the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix, any meaningful action in Melbourne was further delayed by the hapless Karun Chandhok. Making his debut with Team Lotus after being confirmed among its reserves, the Indian completed just three corners of the Albert Park track before losing control on cold tyres and hitting the wall at turn four. With the T128 - destined for Jarno Trulli for the rest of the weekend - badly damaged, and debris littering the track and run-off area, the rest of the field opted to bide its time before venturing out, with Williams rookie Pastor Maldonado the first to set a time.
The Venezuelan was among those needing to learn the Albert Road layout in the flesh, despite many miles pounding around the circuit on the simulator, but his stay at the top of the times did not last long. With the rest of the field eventually joining him on track, it didn't take long for the winter pace-setters to move to the front, with Webber and Vettel swapping top spot through the remainder of the 90-minute session. Just as Vettel thought he may have put one over the local hero, however, Webber conjured up a lap of 1min 26.831secs to move back into P1.
Vettel's best effort narrowly failed to break into the 1min 26s, with Alonso the only other driver to get under 1min 28secs as a late lap lifted the Spaniard into third spot. Alonso was followed on the timesheets by Nico Rosberg, confirming Mercedes' late return to form, and Rubens Barrichello, who again suggested that Williams may be a dark horse in 2011, but the biggest - and perhaps most welcome - surprise of the session was the appearance of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in sixth and seventh places. McLaren had revealed a raft of changes to its MP4-26 in the build-up to the race weekend, and they appear to have worked as the two Britons initially put Webber and Vettel under pressure before being pushed back late in the session.
The second Mercedes of Michael Schumacher was eighth fastest, 1.8secs off Webber's pace in a strung-out field, with Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) and Vitaly Petrov (Renault) completing the top ten. Both the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa and Petrov's Renault team-mate Nick Heidfeld were close to the Russian as they filled eleventh and twelfth spots.
Adrian Sutil (Force India), Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso), Maldonado, Australian debutant Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso) and Sauber rookie Sergio Perez comprised the next bunch, separated by three tenths, before bigger gaps stretched back to Nico Hulkenberg - running Paul di Resta's Force India - and Team Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen. The Virgin duo Jerome d'Ambrosio and Timo Glock were the only other drivers to set a flying lap as, in an echo of last season's Bahrain opener, neither HRT entry made an appearance.
The Spanish team, which failed to complete a lap with its new F111 in pre-season testing, insists that it is hopeful of making it out with Narain Karthikeyan and Tonio Liuzzi in second practice later in the day.