Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton put McLaren at the top of the first official timesheet of the 2012 F1 season, but the opening free practice session in Australia did little to provide a clearer picture of the pecking order.
The McLaren duo vaulted to the top of the order in the final third of the 90-minute session, after damp conditions made the early running little more than exploratory. Melbourne had been hit by a series of downpours in the 24 hours prior to the action getting under way, and the rain continued, albeit more lightly, even as the green light appeared at the end of pit-lane on Friday morning. Adding to the tricky conditions, an oil slick laid by one of the supporting races meant that caution was the order of the day until the surface dried out.
Caterham's aim of being the first car on track at Albert Park did not come to pass, as Toro Rosso stole that honour, courtesy of rookie Jean-Eric Vergne, as well as that for first flying lap, as Daniel Ricciardo set the bar at 1min 47.448secs. Although the benchmark was gradually lowered by the likes of Fernando Alonso, Nico Rosberg and Kamui Kobayashi, it was some time before the teams had the confidence to switch from intermediates - or full wets in Rosberg's case - to slicks, with Kobayashi immediately going some five seconds faster than he had previously managed.
The Japanese was followed at the top of the charts by Red Bull's Mark Webber and Mercedes' Michael Schumacher, and the German appeared to be on course for FP1 honours until McLaren wound up its two MP4-27s and allowed Button and Hamilton to go for it in the final 15 minutes. Button was the first to depose the Mercedes, posting a 1min 27.560secs target with just under ten minutes to go, with Hamilton eventually slotting into second spot on his final run, having been denied a shot at replacing his team-mate by traffic on a previous run. The younger Briton ended the session just over two-tenths off the pace, with Schumacher four-tenths further back in third place.
Alonso somehow held on to fourth, despite his Ferrari still showing some wild handling traits, while Webber and Rosberg rounded out the top six, ahead of some surprising names, including Ricciardo and Pastor Maldonado, who filled seventh and eighth ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Kobayashi. The Finn's appearance in the leading group - albeit some two seconds off the pace - was unexpected as his E20 had been without a steering system for much of the session as Lotus attempted to find the right solution for the circuit.
World champion Sebastian Vettel was only eleventh fastest despite putting in a 21-lap total bettered only by a handful of rivals, but there was worse news for another potential frontrunner, as Felipe Massa exited the fray at turn nine with a third of the session still to run. Although he radioed the pits to check for a possible fault on the Ferrari, video footage clearly showed a couple of wheels on the still damp grass....
There was also frustration for HRT, which managed only three laps with Narain Karthikeyan before an oil pressure sensor shut the Indian's Cosworth engine down before he had the chance to set a time. Team-mate Pedro de la Rosa failed to even get out on track, meanwhile, as the team was still building his car after its request to delay scrutineering. That left the Spanish team behind expected rival Marussia which, despite getting both Timo Glock and Charles Pic out for the whole session, still lagged seven the twelve seconds off the pace - and outside the 107 per cent mark that will play a part in qualifying.