Hamilton held top spot until Vettel emerged for his final run of the session. The reigning World Champion was the first man under 1m39s and eventually set a time of 1:38.215 for Red Bull Racing, an enormous 1.4s ahead of the Englishman, crossing the line as the chequered flag flew. Behind them Fernando Alonso was third for Ferrari and Jenson Button fourth in the second McLaren. Mark Webber took fifth in the second Red Bull ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Nico Hülkenberg was seventh for Force India, Saubers Kamui Kobayashi was eighth, Nico Rosberg finished ninth for Mercedes and Sergio Pérez was tenth in the second Sauber.
The first practice session began with cars sliding and slithering on their out-laps – it was a theme that would continue throughout the session, cold temperatures and a green track contributing to a number of spins and off-track excursions. The unknowns of the new circuit prompted most teams to put both race drivers into the car straight away, rather than running FP1 with a reserve. The exception was HRT, where Ma Qing Hua stood in for Narain Karthikeyan.
Kobayashi and Williams’ Bruno Senna were the first men to venture out for proper running. They set cautious times while reconnoitring. Of the front-runners, Webber set the early benchmark with 1:45.918. From that chunks of time were hewn as drivers grew more confident. Alonso reset the standard at 1:42.538 and the Hamilton with 1:40.175.
Into the final 15 minutes Hamilton was the first man under the 1m40s barrier with 1:39.687. He took another tenth off that and looked like holding P1 until Vettel swept around, first taking a full second off the McLaren man and then underlining his pace by finding another half-second on his final lap.
Outside of the top ten, Paul di Resta’s Force India was 11th followed by the Toro Rossos of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. Abu Dhabi winner Kimi Räikkönen was 14th, ahead of team-mate Romain Grosjean as Lotus struggled for grip. Pastor Maldonado was 16th for Williams, Michael Schumacher seventeenth for Mercedes and Charles Pic the best of the backmarkers in 18th for Marussia.
Behind Pic came Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov, 19th and 20th respectively for Caterham. Timo Glock was 21st for Caterham. Bruno Senna could do no better than 22nd in the second Williams, and HRT brought up the rear with Pedro de la Rosa ahead of Ma.