As expected, Red Bull Racing returned to the top of the timesheets in third and final free practice at the Australian Grand Prix, but the margin of Sebastian Vettel's advantage will have sent shock waves through the field.

The reigning world champion is well-known for his ability to put together blistering qualifying laps, and it appeared that he was warming up for this afternoon's timed session as he banged in a 1min 24-507secs effort - easily the fastest lap of the weekend so far - at the end of the hour-long session.

To that point it appeared that Red Bull and McLaren may be well-matched, with Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber duking it out with Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton at the head of the times, but the German's flier put him a massive eight-tenths clear of everyone and amply demonstrated the potential many had predicted was in the RB7. Webber wound up second fastest as RBR again claimed a 1-2, but McLaren underlined its return to form as Hamilton and Button settled into third and fourth, both within three tenths of the Australian if a full second adrift of the benchmark time.

There was more encouragement too for Renault, which saw Vitaly Petrov round out the top five , ahead of the leading Ferrari of Fernando Alonso. While there is surely more to come from the Spaniard, Petrov's position - plus the ninth spot filled by team-mate Nick Heidfeld - suggests that the black-and-gold cars will be in the mix in Q3.

Between the two Renaults, Kamui Kobayashi and Nico Rosberg gave Sauber and Mercedes a top ten presence, with the German's team-mate Michael Schumacher rounding out the top group, although both Silver Arrows were more than two seconds shy of Vettel's mark. Felipe Massa again missed the top ten, this time pushed back to twelfth by the Toro Rosso of Sebastien Buemi and almost matched by the second STR6 of Jaime Alguersuari. Force India team-mates Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil rounded out the top 15.

Missing from the top half of the field, however, was Williams,. which saw both Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado pushed back down the order into 16th and 21st respectively. The Venezuelan rookie found himself behind both Team Lotus entries and the leading Marussia Virgin car of Timo Glock, but only had himself to blame after an accident left him with just five laps under his belt. Fellow rookie Sergio Perez also had a moment, but recovered to chase Barrichello in 17th spot, with a comfortable 1.7secs margin back to Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus.

While Jerome d'Ambrosio matched Maldonado's best effort and looks likely to qualify with ease, the same cannot be said for HRT, which managed a sum total of six laps between Narain Karthikeyan and Tonio Liuzzi, but saw the Italian coast to a halt before setting a time. With the 107 per cent rule back in effect this season, the Spanish team, with a best lap of 1min 41.554secs to its name so far, may find itself on the outside looking in come Sunday.

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