McLaren staged a repeat of its early-weekend performance from the Indian Grand Prix as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton claimed first and places in opening practice at Yas Marina.
Although Red Bull Racing went on to win both pole position and the race in India, and Mark Webber annexed the other top three spot in the 90-minute session in Abu Dhabi, Button made best use of Pirelli's experimental soft compound tyre to emerge on top by little over a tenth, stopping the clocks at 1min 40.263secs. Webber and Hamilton both also used the new rubber, lapping 0.126secs and 0.140secs behind the Briton respectively.
What will have been on concern for the top three, however, is the performance of world champion Sebastian Vettel, who lapped fourth-fastest on the old-spec tyre but was still within half a second of Button's pace.
Behind the German, Fernando Alonso led team-mate Felipe Massa in fifth and sixth, but neither driver had an easy time of it, with the Ferrari looking a handful in its latest aero guise. Both took numerous unscheduled detours across the gaudily-painted run-off, but still managed to lap within a second of the pace, with Alonso close behind Vettel and Massa just sneaking under the one-second margin.
Force India's Adrian Sutil, possibly auditioning for a ride elsewhere in 2012, got the better of the works Mercedes drivers in seventh spot, while team-mate Paul di Resta sandwiched Nico Rosberg with the second of Vijay Mallya's cars. Sutil enjoyed an eighth-tenth advantage over his rivals, however, with Rosberg and di Resta the last men within two
seconds of Button.
Behind them, and rounding out the top ten, was Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari, but the Spaniard had competition of his own as Red Bull protégé Jean-Eric Vergne made the most of his second free practice outing of 2011 by lapping just a couple of tenths off his team-mate. The Frenchman wound up fractionally quicker than countryman and new GP2 Series champion Romain Grosjean, who was making his F1 return with the Lotus Renault team in place of Bruno Senna. Although team-,mate Vitaly Petrov ended the session with his car aflame, Grosjean was four-tenths to the good as he took advantage of the opportunity to prove his candidature for 2012.
Pastor Maldonado was next up, edging Mercedes' Michael Schumacher for 14th, but there was frustration for Williams team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who ground to a halt out by the harbour as his car lost oil pressure. The Brazilian, who is under threat for his seat for 2012, hadn't set a time by the point his car stopped, and he duly propped up the timesheets behind Virgin debutant Robert Wickens who, despite trailing both HRTs, was just over half a second adrift of team-mate Timo Glock at the chequered flag. The German was among a number of drivers to spin during the session, Massa being the most spectacular.