World champion Sebastian Vettel did his bit to dampen speculation surrounding a possible eighth different winner in as many grands prix in 2012 by topping the day one times at a circuit where he and Red Bull Racing have dominated for the past two seasons.
The German made full use of a revised rear end on his RB8 to lower the weekend benchmark to 1min 39.334secs as he completed his qualifying preparation early in the session, but gave his rivals - and those hoping to extend F1's record-breaking start to 2012 - by failing to match the full tank pacesetters towards the end of the 90-minute outing.
Once again, the session proved to be closely contested, with a second covering the top 15 - Felipe Massa now sneaking under the divide - and the top seven getting to within 0.5secs of the pace. The top ten appeared to have been shaken up somewhat, however, with Nico Hulkenberg and Kamui Kobayashi providing the closest opposition to Vettel's mark. The Force India driver looked to have good pace on both high and low fuel loads, but could only get to within 0.131secs off countryman Vettel, while Kobayashi gave Sauber further encouragement by lapping just a couple of tenths off the pace and slotting in ahead of Michael Schumacher and the equally surprising Bruno Senna, who kept up Williams strong start in fifth place, despite sitting out FP1 in favour of Valtteri Bottas. The Brazilian's regular team-mate, Pastor Maldonado, had topped the morning session, but dropped to 13th in FP2 despite improving his time.
Paul di Resta capped a solid session for Force India with sixth position, putting him ahead of local favourite Fernando Alonso, Romain Grosjean, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg, who rounded out the top ten, while Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button both slotted in ahead of Maldonado.
With the track gradually reclaiming some grip from the sand being blown across its surface by the strong sea breezes that dominated the day, all drivers improved on their morning times, even if they did not end the day quite where they had expected to be in the order. Canadian GP winner Lewis Hamilton was two places further back from his McLaren team-mate, while Massa and Sergio Perez would not have expected to be down in 15th and 16th, with the Mexican just a matter of tenths quicker than Vitaly Petrov in the first of the Caterhams.
The Russian ensured that the green-and-gold team remained ahead of Toro Rosso, while team-mate Heikki Kovalainen demoted Jean-Eric Vergne to 20th, ahead only of the Marussias and HRTs. While there were plenty of lock-ups as drivers got to grips with the changing surface, only Pedro de la Rosa did lasting damage to his car, understeering into the turn 14 wall in a moment he took full responsibility for. The timing of the incident interrupted the low-fuel runs of most of the field and may have contributed to the unusual order, but then F1 2012 has hardly been predictable anyway.