Melbourne: McLaren and Ferrari threw down the challenge to the world champion Red Bull team in Friday`s practice for this weekend`s season-opening Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne.
The Red Bull pair of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel dominated first free practice with Webber clocking a best lap of one minute 26.831 seconds, before Jenson Button led a McLaren one-two in the late afternoon hit-out.
Button, bidding for a hat-trick of Melbourne victories in Sunday`s race, clocked 1:25.854, just 0.132secs ahead of 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton.
Ferrari`s Fernando Alonso was lurking with the third quickest time in both practice sessions, indicating that the 16-time constructors` champion team will be thereabouts in the first race.
"We were able to complete a lot of laps today, but the weather was a bit difficult," said Vettel, who at 23 became the youngest F1 world drivers` champion last year.
"Despite that, I think we got a good idea as to where we are compared to our competitors.”
"All in all, I think we can be pleased, it seems we are not too bad, but we have to wait and see."
Local hope Webber, bidding to improve on his best placing of fifth in a 12th attempt at winning his home GP, said Ferrari and McLaren looked in good shape.
"McLaren look quick, but with Ferrari you can never tell, as they always run a bit more fuel on a Friday," Webber said.
Button, who is bidding to equal Michael Schumacher`s record of three consecutive Australian victories at Albert Park, was encouraged by McLaren`s advanced showing.
"Today showed that we’ve got reliability, which is great," Button said.
"That’s something we’ve not had all winter so to have a car that runs for as many laps as we want it to is very satisfying. It also means we can get stuck into our set-up work and improve the car.”
"We’re encouraged by the step we’ve made today."
Alonso, a winner here five years ago with Renault, looks Ferrari`s best hope of landing their seventh Australian GP in 12 years.
"I am happy with the way the car is going," Alonso said. "At the start there was a bit of understeer and we still are a way off from having perfect grip at the front, but it went better than I was expecting."
Vettel said the first use of the abrasive Albert Park street circuit gave all the teams a better sense of how the faster-degrading Pirelli tyres will perform in the first race.
"We expected worse conditions here in terms of how long the tyres would last, but this morning and this afternoon was quite useful in helping us to understand what to do in the race on Sunday.”
"So far everything is positive, we can`t race with one stop only, I think we will have to come in a couple of times.”
"Melbourne is a rough track with a lot of bumps and a lot of corners, and you really feel the speed here in some corners and you don`t have much time in between the corners and everything follows up quickly. It keeps you busy."
Seven-time world champion Schumacher had a best lap of 1:26.590 in his Mercedes, which gave him the sixth best time in the second practice session.
"My first impressions are quite positive. We learned a lot today, and are more or less where we thought we would be," Schumacher said.
"We will sort out some issues on our car for the rest of the weekend but I am still happy with what we have seen here so far."
At the other end of the spectrum, Hispania Racing Team mechanics slaved all day to try to get their cars out on to the track but all they could manage was to squeeze half a lap for Vitantonio Liuzzi just in the final minutes of second practice to ironic applause in the media room.
Qualifying for Sunday`s Melbourne race takes place on Saturday.