Sebastian Vettel may have sneaked into top spot on the timesheets in the closing moments of the third and final practice session at the Circuit de Catalunya, but the jumbled order behind him suggested that not everyone had shown their hand ahead of qualifying.
Vettel moved into P1 after bolting on a set of the softer Pirellis and recording a time of 1min 23.168secs, knocking a couple of tenths off Jenson Button's best from Friday afternoon and depriving Williams' Pastor Maldonado of a surprise result by a similar margin. The German had earlier questioned whether he may actually be able to return to the track for the culmination of the hour-long session as his Red Bull mechanics struggled to change an electronics box in the cockpit of the #1 machine, but was able to reel off the last of his 13 laps as the chequered flag was prepared.
Maldonado had earlier topped the times for a long while, and responded to Vettel's first bid for P1 by returning to the head of the table, but ultimately had to settle for second spot by the slim margin of 0.168secs. His time of 1min 23.336secs also proved just good enough to see off another late challenge, this time from Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi, who replaced team-mate Sergio Perez as the Williams' closest threat as the session wound down. Perez eventually wound up in fifth place, four-tenths further back and separated from the Japanese by Mark Webber.
The polesitter in Barcelona for the past two seasons, Webber was four-tenths off his team-mate but, in common with the other 'big guns' may have been content not to show everything in his armoury at a circuit which everyone knows so well from testing. Friday pacesetter Button was back in eighth, albeit appearing a lot happier with the balance of his McLaren despite lacking traction, while team-mate Lewis Hamilton was only 16th after having his best lap compromised by traffic at the chicane.
Crowd favourite - among the sparse crowd at the circuit during the morning session - Fernando Alonso was sixth fastest, narrowly ahead of Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne, with Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg, the first man to switch to soft tyres but apparently running high fuel loads, rounding out the top ten. Felipe Massa again just missed out, in eleventh and once more than first man a second off the pace, while Michael Schumacher was only 17th, but, with so much data in the bank, it appeared the teams were content to keep working on their own programmes rather than chasing times.
While there were no repeats of Friday's trips through the gravel, one driver failed to set a time after losing his engine to plummeting fuel pressure. Romain Grosjean's hopes of maybe living up to the pre-race hype and securing pole for Lotus took a hit before he managed to set a time and, even though the car was returned to the pit-lane, the team were unable to fix the problem before time ran out.
The only other incident of note was a loose rear wheel for Marussia's Timo Glock, which surprised the German at the final chicane and forced him to park up at pit-exit. Glock ended the session in 21st spot, behind team-mate Charles Pic, but ahead of the troubled HRTs of Narain Karthikeyan, who completed 22 more laps than he managed on Friday, and the field's other Spaniard, Pedro de la Rosa.