Lewis Hamilton took first blood in preparations for the weekend's Korean Grand Prix, but the presence of both Red Bulls immediately behind his Mercedes suggests that the Briton will have his work cut out to succeed this weekend.
Hamilton eventually topped a slow-burning opening practice session by just 0.037secs from world champion – and 2013 world champion elect - Sebastian Vettel, with the second RB9 of Mark Webber
a further 0.15secs behind the Briton, but the most dramatic conclusion to the 90 minutes came when Kimi Raikkonen
smote the tyre wall a hefty blow that left his Lotus with severe front end damage.
With the circuit not having been used, at all, since last year's grand prix finished, there was a naturally cautious opening to the session, with the leading teams reluctant to venture out and waste a set of tyres cleaning the layer of dust off the tarmac. Vettel, intriguingly, did complete a handful of laps in the opening half hour, but the running was generally left to the lesser lights.
With the television cameras trained on his Marussia, the spotlight proved a little too bright for Rodolfo Gonzalez, who ripped the nose from the car after a meeting with the wall, but for others, including Force India
reserve James Calado, it provided an interesting learning curve.
The Briton eventually wound up 18th overall, some 3.8secs faster than Marussia counterpart Gonzalez, while the overall honours were taken by countryman Hamilton, who completed 20 laps in the session, but was not without his own drama after being among those caught out by turn ten early in the proceedings. Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, meanwhile, helped sandwich the two Red Bulls in fourth place, but was only just ahead of Jenson Button, who gave McLaren
a much-needed fillip in fifth spot, ahead of both Fernando Alonso
and the two Lotus drivers.
Romain Grosjean stole the earlier upper hand in the latter battle, but team-mate Raikkonen was hampered in his efforts to wrest seventh spot from the Frenchman after losing control in the final sector and spinning across the grass before making heavy contact with the tyre wall. Although the Finn, who still carries doubts about his injured back, was able to hop out of the cockpit apparently unscathed, the same could not be said for his car, the left front corner of which bore the scars of its meeting with the wall.
Sergio Perez, who led the way at the end of the opening third of the session, and Felipe Massa, in the second Ferrari
rounded out the top ten, with Nico Hulkenberg
breathing down the Brazilian's neck in eleventh. Adrian Sutil, Pastor Maldonado, Esteban Gutierrez and Jean-Eric Vergne were next up, all under 1min 42secs, while Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo both came close to joining the group.
Caterham again had the measure of Marussia in the battle at the back, although Max Chilton's efforts to match the green machines – he was 0.3secs slower than Giedo van der Garde – were hindered by a sensor problem which kept him in the garage for some time.