Massa and Rosberg had also led the way after the first couple of hours, and the third man in that equation popped back up to ensure a reprise at the end. Vettel also completed over one hundred laps – going one better than Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber's 101 from Wednesday – as he got his first taste of the new RB9. The triple world champion wasted no time in exploring its potential and reported that it had been good to get behind the wheel again after the winter break.
“So far, I think we can be pretty happy,” he said. “Mark had a good couple of days to start with, [but] it was great to get back in the car, to get rid of the rust and to get back in the groove again.
“The first feeling is good and the car is working well. It's difficult to judge the speed but, in terms of reliability, it looks pretty good, [and] we accomplished what we set out to achieve – which was to put a lot of laps on the car.
“At this stage it's very difficult to judge anything else. It could be that there is a favourite after these three tests, but it could turn out to be completely different in Australia because it's a different track with different characteristics. In terms of the times, it's always nice to be on top, but if there's one phase of the year where it matters least, it's here.”
The world champion had to depose Kimi Raikkonen from third spot in the closing stages, but his task was eased by the Finn not adding to his 40-lap tally in the last couple of hours due to a clutch problem which stranded him in the garage in the midst of the usual programme of system checks, temperature monitoring and aero evaluations.
“It was good to get behind the wheel of an F1 car again, and the E21 feels quite good so far, even if the balance isn't quite to my liking yet,” Raikkonen reported, “That didn't stop us going through the programme we wanted to do which had a lot of aero runs in it. We know the car can go faster, we were just running through what we needed to achieve. It's a shame that we had a clutch issue at the end of the day, but that's why we come testing so we can find these problems and fix them.”
Jean-Eric Vergne upheld Toro Rosso's strong start to the season with fifth spot, the Frenchman finding an improvement in pace late on to push Force India's James Rossiter back another spot.
After his brief appearance on Wednesday afternoon, Rossiter got an extended run in the VJM06, designed to help him equate his work in Force India's simulator with 'the real thing'. The Briton, who had not driven an F1 car since acting as a test driver for the Honda 'works' team, ran as high as third on the timesheets before slipping back and then handing the car back to di Resta for what proved to be an abortive late run.
"It has been four-and-a-half years since I last drove an F1 car but, with the simulator experience I've built up recently, it didn't take too long to get back up to speed,” Rossiter reported, “The programme today has been very useful for getting a feel for the car as a reference for the simulator. The cars have changed quite a lot and it was the first time I've used KERS. It's important to know how the tyres behave and we've worked hard to try and understand them this week. That will help make the simulator model more representative as a way of exploiting the car's potential."
Rossiter's best effort left him ahead of fellow Briton Jenson Button, despite completing around half the number of laps. Button didn't post a time through the first couple of hours – in the company of both Rossiter and Raikkonen – but piled on the laps as the day wore on, eventually getting another 83 in the books.