|© AP Photo/John Donegan
For all the talk about the unpredictability of the new Formula 1 season, Friday's opening practice for the Australian Grand Prix followed a well-established pattern, with Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull again setting the pace.
Three-time reigning world champion Vettel signalled he is the man to beat again in 2013 by setting the fastest time in both practice sessions, with his teammate Mark Webber second best around the Albert Park circuit.
Their strong performance, with no apparent technical problems, immediately dashed the hopes of rivals who had hoped they had caught up to the F1 leaders over the off-season.
"It was pretty seamless and there was no trouble with the car," Vettel said. "Today was a good day and the balance was good, but we need to be ready for what's coming up."
Mercedes' Nico Rosberg was third quickest but suffered a gearbox failure late in the second session, shortly after new teammate Lewis Hamilton speared off the track into a tyre wall. The late problems put some tarnish on an otherwise promising afternoon for the team, which confirmed the impression given at preseason testing that it would be pushing for podiums and even wins in the early stages of the season.
Lotus and Ferrari lived up to expectations that they, along with Mercedes, would be Red Bull's main challengers in the first half of the season. Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean were fourth and fifth fastest. The Ferrari pair of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were sixth and eighth -- separated by Hamilton -- while Force India's Adrian Sutil and Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top ten.
McLaren's Jenson Button, who has won three of the past four Australian races, was down the timesheets in 11th place, indicating the team has significant teething problems with its new design, which is more innovative than the conservative evolutions of rival teams. Button was a humbling 2.4 seconds off Vettel's time, while his new teammate Sergio Perez was a further quarter of a second back.
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh attested to the team's struggles by saying "that is one of the hardest days I can recall" and he has been in the sport for more than two decades.
"A very poor day and one where we didn't go forward over the course of the day either, which is a concern."
Mercedes was going strongly until the final ten minutes when Hamilton suffered a problem with the floor of the car which cause understeer and sent him careering off the track at turn six, followed quickly by Rosberg's gearbox failure.
However team principal Ross Brawn said "overall it was a very reasonable first day" and it was expected the late glitches would be quickly fixed.
Much interest in the first official day of the 2013 season was centred on how the tyres would perform, as the higher-degradation compounds raised the ire of just about all teams in preseason testing. They lasted better than expected, with most drivers managing more than two dozen laps on the medium tyre and a dozen or more on the supersofts.
Friday provided what may be the best chance of the weekend for teams to test their settings, as rain is forecast for Saturday and cool conditions for race day Sunday.
The street circuit was still slippery and dusty, but develops grip over the course of the weekend as rubber is laid down. Vettel's best time Friday of 1 minute, 25.908 seconds was almost a full second off Hamilton's 2012 pole position time, in cars of very similar specifications.
The practice sessions also gave the best indication yet of the early pecking order among the teams after the mysteries of preseason testing.
Red Bull's best time was four tenths of a second faster than Mercedes and Lotus, who posted almost identical bests. Ferrari was a further four tenths back, in turn six tenths better than Force India, which was eight tenths ahead of Sauber and McLaren. Then followed Toro Rosso, Williams before the usual backmarkers Marussia and Caterham, which were no better or worse relative to other teams than they had been last season.