The weather played ball, as violent overnight storms blew themselves out and the paddock was greeted with the welcome surprise of a dry track and much cooler temperatures than had been seen in FP2.
The Silver Arrows made a low key start, and after 40 minutes Rosberg was only 14th and Hamilton 16th. In their absence, home favourite Felipe Massa played the hero, leading Valtteri Bottas for a provisional Williams one-two.
The dynamic changed as the field bolted on the soft compound tyre. Fernando Alonso went fastest with a 1m 11.399s - quicker than Juan Pablo Montoya's 2004 lap record - but then headed back to the Ferrari garage, changing out of his overalls to signal an early end to his running.
The Silver Arrows then came to the fore, with Rosberg demolishing the Spaniard's time with 1m 10.446s to restore the status quo. Hamilton finally came out with 12 minutes left after having many adjustments to an F1 W05 Hybrid which was prone to brake locking, and in which he'd had a lurid spin earlier at Turn 1. He managed 1m 10.560s for second, but thereafter both he and Rosberg ran into traffic and were unable to improve.
Not so Massa, who carved down to 1m 10.875s for third, comfortably ahead of Bottas, who posted 1m 11.054s for fourth. Massa's subsequent effort to go faster still was thwarted by traffic in the form of Force India's Sergio Perez.
Daniel Ricciardo was yet again the faster Red Bull driver with 1m 11.188s in fifth, ahead of a more optimistic Jenson Button on 1m 11.210s for McLaren, Kimi Raikkonen on 1m 11.316s for Ferrari, Alonso, and Kevin Magnussen on 1m 11.499s in the other McLaren.
Daniil Kvyat was 10th for Toro Rosso on 1m 11.834s, ahead of a struggling Sebastian Vettel on 1m 11.967s in the second Red Bull.
For a while Lotus looked strong as Pastor Maldonado jumped up to fourth with 1m 12.069s as the first runner to go to softs. But he slid down to 12th, chased by Adrian Sutil on 1m 12.184s for Sauber, team mate Romain Grosjean on 1m 12.235s, and Toro Rosso's early pacesetter Jean-Eric Vergne, who set the same time as Grosjean. Esteban Gutierrez in the second Sauber set 1m 12.286s for 16th, ahead of the Force India duo of Nico Hulkenberg and Perez, on 1m 12.324s and 1m 12.942s respectively.
In an extremely close session, just 2.5 seconds covered the entire field.