Pastor Maldonado emerged as the surprise leader of the pack after the opening free practice session of the European Grand Prix on the port-side streets of Valencia.

The Venezuelan, who has always shown a penchant for street circuits, moved to the head of the field midway through the 90-minute session, and then resisted late efforts to dislodge him as the entire 24-car entry used only Pirelli's harder medium compound while the track lost its covering of dust and began to bed in.

Indeed, it was not until 24 minutes had past that the first flying lap was registered, courtesy of Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne, but the circuit gradually became busier, as the teams ventured out to try their latest developments. As a result, there were the usual array of data-logging contraptions bolted to all areas of bodywork, and copious amounts of flo-vis paint, notably at Ferrari. The outcome, however, was a top ten separated by 0.7secs and 13 drivers within a second of Maldonado's 1min 40.890secs best. The Williams driver was the first to break into the 1min 40s, but was later joined by Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Jenson Button, who filled places two through four on the final timesheet.

Red Bull has traditionally gone well around the Valencia circuit and introduced a new rear-end treatment for the session, which appeared to work well as its two drivers wound up less than a tenth from Maldonado. It was also a better session for Button after his Montreal nightmare, although the Briton continued to 'complain' throughout his runs, most notably when he lost his McLaren's KERS capability, before a suspension tweak gave him a leg-up to fourth.

Fernando Alonso rounded out the top five for Ferrari, 0.104secs off the pace after the introduction of a new front wing, with Paul di Resta providing a deviation from the expected frontrunners in sixth, ahead of Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen. While not as far down the list as they had been on Friday in Canada, the Lotus drivers again appeared to fall prey to the conditions, which were decidedly cooler and more blustery than this which greeted the teams on Thursday. Team-mate Romain Grosjean was one place and just over a tenth slower than the 2007 world champion, with Sauber twins Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez not far behind.

Felipe Massa, who earlier in the week expressed optimism that he could become F1's eighth different winner in 2012, was only 14th fastest, the first driver over a second shy of Maldonado, while test drivers Jules Bianchi and Valtteri Bottas scrapped over 15th for Force India and Williams respectively. Caterham, meanwhile, again got the better of STR, as Heikki Kovalainen - finishing FP1 for the first time in three rounds - edged Vergne by fully three tenths.