The German, who had been confined to the garage in the early stages after complaining of a loss of power and appearing to be stuck in seventh gear, moved ahead of Hamilton’s benchmark shortly after a brief red flag period, caused when Pastor Maldonado crashed his Lotus coming out of Turn 7 with a little under half of the session remaining.
Rosberg eventually ended with 1m 51.082s to Hamilton’s 1m 51.324s. Last year’s winner Ricciardo was just five hundredths further back on 1m 51.373s in his unfancied Renault-engined Red Bull.
Kimi Raikkonen celebrated his new contract - and Ferrari’s 900th Grand Prix - by setting the fourth fastest time of 1m 51.478s, as team mate Sebastian Vettel ran fifth on 1m 51.866s.
Daniil Kvyat was the final driver in the 1m 51s bracket in the second Red Bull, finishing ahead of the impressive Toro Rossos of ‘local boy’ Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, who lapped in 1m 52.158s and 1m 52.421s respectively.
Force India’s Sergio Perez was right on the rookie duo’s tail with 1m 52.423s, as Valtteri Bottas moved up to 10th at the expense of Maldonado. The Williams driver lapped in 1m 52.511s, the Lotus pilot in 1m 52.539s before his crash, which badly damaged his Lotus’s right front suspension.
Nico Hulkenberg took 12th for Force India with 1m 52.614s as Sauber’s Felipe Nasr pipped Felipe Massa in the second Williams, 1m 52.614s to 1m 52.653s.
Marcus Ericsson complained of loss of power in the second Sauber, which he took round in 1m 53.426s, and Fernando Alonso was only 16th on 1m 53.502s in the lead McLaren. Jenson Button meanwhile had problems in the other MP4-30, which was also running Honda’s latest Mk3 engine. An ERS gremlin restricted him to a disappointing 1m 54.225s best and 18th place. In between them, Jolyon Palmer’s run in Romain Grosjean’s Lotus yielded 1m 53.799s.
At the back, Will Stevens was Marussia’s faster runner, with 1m 55.501s to Robert Merhi’s 1m 56.086s.