For much of the time the uninitiated might have been duped into believing that Mercedes’ advantage had been seriously eroded as Hamilton’s speed was matched by not only Button, but Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, as well as team mate Nico Rosberg.
Going into the final minutes it was Button, perhaps surprisingly, who was fastest, on 1m 27.891s, from Ricciardo on 1m 27.973s. Hamilton was third on 1m 28.028s, but right at the end the winner of the past three races banged in a 1m 27.109s and followed that with 1m 27.023s to remind everyone who was boss just as the chequered flag fell.
Button remained an encouraging second, but even at this early stage, when everyone was running on Pirelli’s hard tyre, the 0.868s deficit was ominous.
As Ricciardo’s time held up for third best, team mate Sebastian Vettel remained a spectator after his RB10, equipped with a ‘new’ chassis (actually one he used in testing) let him down after half an hour with a reported electrical problem. He finished 20th overall, on 1m 30.942s, completing just four laps.
Alonso was fourth fastest with 1m 28.128s and was cautiously pleased with the start to Ferrari’s campaign. Team mate Kimi Raikkonen wasn’t far behind, in sixth on 1m 28.337s, just behind Rosberg who suffered from ERS cooling issues during the session and only completed 9 laps for 1m 28.168s.
Kevin Magnussen took seventh with 1m 28.423s for McLaren, while Pastor Maldonado’s 1m 28.744s was a major boost for Lotus in eighth. Right on the 2012 winner’s tail were Sergio Perez’s Force India (who suffered a strange moment when his wing mirror came loose) on 1m 28.779s, Felipe Massa’s Williams on 1m 28.791s and Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso on 1m 28.792s.
The second Force India of Nico Hulkenberg (1m 28.828s) and the other Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne (1m 28.859s) completed the runners below 1m 29s.
Felipe Nasr took Valtteri Bottas’s Williams round in 1m 29.272s for 14th, ahead of Adrian Sutil’s lightweight Sauber on 1m 29.688s, an impressive Jules Bianchi’s Marussia on 1m 29.820s and Romain Grosjean’s Lotus on 1m 29.944s.
Giedo van der Garde had an adventure at Turn 1 on his way to 1m 30.440s in Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber. The Dutchman suffered a brake issue and a scary trip through the gravel before returning to the track. He eventually finished 18th ahead of Max Chilton’s Marussia on 1m 30.748s, Vettel, and the Caterhams of Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson on 1m 30.997s and 1m 31.421s respectively.