Lewis Hamilton kept the McLaren team on top of the F1 timesheets as the final practice session of the Australian Grand Prix weekend provided the field with its first completely dry running.
The Briton snatched top spot with his final lap of the 60-minute session, moving up one place to supplant Romain Grosjean, who had earlier added intrigue to a session that raised as many questions as answers by putting his Lotus at the head of the pack. The Enstone team showed well in pre-season testing, but had been expected to fall in behind the likes of McLaren and Red Bull once the serious business of a grand prix weekend got underway. Less than a tenth of a second separated the reigning GP2 Series champion from Hamilton as the session ended, with the rest of the field two-tenths adrift.
Third place eventually went the way of Red Bull's Mark Webber, but the Milton Keynes team only made slow progress during the session, as everyone took advantage of the sunny conditions to try their cars in a range of configurations with both qualifying and the race still to come. Webber gradually inched his way up the charts before settling in third, but there was bad news for team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who spun into the turn six gravel before he could complete a low fuel run. The world champion appeared to put a rear wheel on the grass as he prepared to turn in, and travelled so far into the trap that his session was over.
Vettel was not the only German to find the 'beach', with Michel Schumacher replicating his error by rotating his Mercedes out of the session at turn nine. The seven-time world champion had at least taken his place towards the front of the field before his mistake, however, as the Three Pointed Star again showed that it could be a contender - albeit a contentious one - for pole position. Team-mate Nico Rosberg set the early pace, and returned to top spot by knocking Schumacher out of P1 midway through the session, but doubts remain over the legality of its rear wing DRS enhancement, which could yet be protested by rival teams. Rosberg ended the session fifth fastest, with Schumacher one place further back.
Just ahead of the two Germans, Jenson Button ensured that McLaren would head into qualifying confident that it has a shot at the front row by claiming fourth spot, a couple of tenths off team-mate Hamilton, and only 0.006secs slower than Webber. Vettel's error, meanwhile, left the German in seventh, ahead of the surprising Pastor Maldonado, Sauber's Sergio Perez and Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo, as the session confirmed that qualifying could yet be unpredictable.
At the other end of the order, HRT's performance emphasised claims that it is unlikely to make the cut for Sunday's race, with Pedro de la Rosa complaining of steering problems on his way to 23rd overall, still some seven seconds off the pace. Team-mate Narain Karthikeyan brought up the rear after posting similar times to the Spaniard.
Just ahead of them, Marussia pair Timo Glock and Charles Pic look a little better off, with the French rookie only half a second slower than his team-mate, the pair around five seconds off Hamilton's benchmark. It could be a lonely race should one or both make the grid, however, with Caterham a couple of seconds faster despite problems on Vitaly Petrov's machine.
Q2 could prove to be the crucial session, particularly for the likes of Ferrari, which struggled to 16th and 18th with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa respectively. The F2012 continued to look a handful for both drivers, with Massa spinning early on. Unless it finds time to spare, the Scuderia could find itself in the midfield mix with the likes of Force India, Toro Rosso, Sauber and Williams, as all posted similar times.