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Lewis Hamilton has returned Mercedes to the top of the timesheets in comprehensive fashion during first free practice for the Chinese Grand Prix, the defending champion emerging more than 1.1secs ahead of Ferrari.

The series leader struck to the front with little more than 40mins of the opening session remaining around the Shanghai International Circuit, his lap of 1min 39.033secs not only standing firm until the chequered flag, but leaving him more than half a second ahead of Nico Rosberg.

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Not that it was a perfect session for either Hamilton or Rosberg, with both drivers - along with several others - experiencing leery off-track moments on a cool, but sunny start to the day.

Even so, Hamilton was still more than a second clear of Malaysian Grand Prix winner Vettel in the Ferrari, while team-mate Kimi Raikkonen remained a further half second adrift to leave Mercedes comfortably out front at this early stage.

With the remainder of the competition at least 1.9secs behind, Felipe Nasr nonetheless emphasised the Ferrari power unit pace by going fifth best for Sauber, ahead of Red Bull pairing Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, with Toro Rosso counterpart Carlos Sainz in eighth.

A typically quiet start to the weekend for Williams would see Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in a low key ninth and tenth, the latter suffering a low speed spin at the hairpin in the closing minutes.

Just outside the top ten, Pastor Maldonado was 11th best, ahead of Max Verstappen and Jenson Button, the British driver showing increasing competiveness in the McLaren-Honda, three tenths and four positions clear of team-mate Fernando Alonso.

Making his first appearance on an F1 race weekend, Jolyon Palmer suffered an inauspicious debut when he spun the Lotus early on, the reigning GP2 Series champion recovering to 15th place, sixth tenths behind Maldonado.

At the back of the field, Manor accumulated 38 laps of mileage between Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi, the former within 107 per cent - 6.3secs off the ultimate pace -, but the latter just outside at 7.4secs adrift.