Sebastian Vettel topped the first official practice session of the 2013 season as Red Bull went some way towards showing their hand in Melbourne. The pace of the RB9 was surrounded in doubts with the team shying away from headline times in testing but the reigning world champion needed just four flying laps to set a 1:27.211, eight hundredths quicker than Felipe Massa’s Ferrari.
Appropriately, home driver Daniel Ricciardo was the first to join the race track but it was almost forty minutes before the Toro Rosso clocked the first time of the year, 1:36.089. Along with Marussia and Caterham, the STR8 effectively played the role of track cleaner early on with Kimi Raikkonen immediately jumping two seconds clear on his first attempt for Lotus despite being held up by Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber.
Raikkonen had lowered the benchmark to 1:27.877 before the other big hitters joined him with both McLarens falling well short on their initial efforts. The Mercedes’ of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton had no such trouble joining the Lotus in the 1:27s but the ease at which Fernando Alonso registered a 1:27.547 will have caught everyone’s attention, the time coming on his first timed lap.
The pattern from the end of 2012 was reflected on the first morning of the new year with Sebastian Vettel marginally pipping the Ferrari, going fastest on a 1:27.320, but with Felipe Massa flying in the other F138, Vettel needed another improvement to ensure his place at the top of the timesheets. Massa held on to second ahead of his teammate while Hamilton struck the first blow at Mercedes by outpacing Rosberg, the pair split by Mark Webber and Kimi Raikkonen.
Adrian Sutil’s Formula One comeback got off to an impressive start with eighth place as his Paul Di Resta made headlines of a different sort. The Scot could only manage thirteenth and was fortunate to escape the turn six gravel trap after dropping a wheel on the grass under braking.
McLaren did little to confound the fears surrounding their early-season form with Jenson Button 1.2 seconds off the pace in ninth while Sergio Perez followed two tenths and two places behind the Briton. Romain Grosjean managed to split the teammates with one of the few late improvements as the tyres faded, lifting him above the Mexican as well as Nico Hulkenberg in the fastest Sauber.
The Williams’ of Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas followed in fourteenth and fifteenth respectively with Esteban Gutierrez beaten to the honour of leading rookie by the Finn. He was sixteenth with the Toro Rosso, Marussia and Caterham cars running two-by-two at the back of the field. With Jules Bianchi setting a 1:31.263, the Frenchman defeated the leading Caterham by a full second, as well as his rookie teammate Max Chilton.
Understandably, the green track surface caught many drivers out with Di Resta’s spin far from the only excursion. Felipe Massa had visited the same gravel trap minutes earlier after dirtying his tyres at the previous corner while Giedo van der Garde sent his Caterham for a trip through the grass at turn one, summing up a tough morning for the Leafield squad.