Jenson Button topped the opening practice session of the 2012 Formula One season after his skill on a drying track came to the fore again. Overnight rain left the track damp on Friday morning and nobody ventured out on dry tyres until the final half hour.
Rain fell again in the moments before practice started, meaning Jean-Eric Vergne led the drivers out on intermediate tyres. Other drivers were less confident and Timo Glock gave the Marussia MR01 its initial shakedown on full wets.
Sergio Perez was the first man to brave it on slicks but the experiment lasted only one lap, deciding the track was too slippery. Teammate Kamui Kobayashi had a go ten minutes later and promptly set a 1:31.751, five seconds quicker than his previous benchmark. The stark improvement alerted teams up and down the pitlane and with everybody now on the prime tyres, the race was on to finish quickest in FP1.
Mark Webber put Red Bull on top for the first time in 2012, only to be usurped by Kobayashi, before Michael Schumacher outpaced the pair of them, pulling out a half-second advantage over the rest of the field while teammate Nico Rosberg slotted into second.
McLaren kept their powder dry until the final 20 minutes when Lewis Hamilton split the Mercedes, but Button showed he was still the man to watch when conditions are uncertain and reeled off a series of laps in the mid 1:27s, culminating in a 1:27.560. Hamilton looked set to pip him in the dying seconds before encountering a touring Rosberg and was forced to settle for second, a quarter of a second adrift.
Schumacher slipped to third but his former employers had a tough start to the season, as forecast by many pre-season observers. Fernando Alonso wrestled the unpredictable Ferrari up to fourth but Felipe Massa's session ended in the gravel after putting a wheel on the grass under braking for turn nine.
Mark Webber edged out Rosberg for fifth while Daniel Ricciardo took an impressive seventh for Toro Rosso. Pastor Maldonado also shone to take eighth while the returning Kimi Raikkonen claimed ninth despite a steering issue which restricted his running early on.
Kamui Kobayashi rounded out the top ten while defending champion Sebastian Vettel ended up a subdued 11th. Jean-Eric Vergne was the leading debutant in 19th, three places ahead of compatriot Charles Pic who finally got his first taste of the new Marusssia.
HRT achieved their first aim of getting their new machine up and running but sadly for them, the F112 could only manage two and a half laps in the hands of Narain Karthikeyan before grinding to a halt.