The high temperatures created a very slippery surface initially, which meant plenty of oversteering cars. After Alonso had set the ball rolling with a soft-tyre run in 1m 38.158s, and then cut that down to 1m 37.864s, Rosberg set the pace with 1m 36.343s on Pirelli’s mediums before Hamilton dusted that with 1m 36.144s - on hards - and then trimmed that to 1m 35.956s.
Vettel then went quickest for Ferrari, on softs, with 1m 35.605s, but Rosberg soon edged by that on the same rubber with 1m 35.177s. A 0.428s gap looked promising for the red cars, but then Hamilton used softs to reset the ante with 1m 34.944s to beat Rosberg by 0.233s and Vettel by 0.661s.
After undisclosed problems early on, Raikkonen improved to 1m 35.842s on softs to take fourth.
This left Red Bull still trailing Ferrari, as Verstappen’s best on the yellow-marked soft tyres was 1m 36.037s, good enough only for fifth. The Dutchman was followed by Perez on 1m 36.284s, Alonso on 1m 36.296s, Ricciardo on 1m 36.337s and Hulkenberg on 1m 36.390s.
Button languished in 20th place up until the last 25 minutes as changes in the track conditions obliged McLaren to manage his set-up. He cut down to 1m 36.715s to move up to 10th, but complained bitterly when he was seemingly blocked from going quicker by former team mate Kevin Magnussen.
The Dane’s rebuilt Renault finally got going with an hour to go, which was a solid effort by the team’s mechanics after the mess the fire extinguishant left after its pit-lane fire in the morning session. As team mate Jolyon Palmer was a strong and confident-looking 12th on 1m 36.940s, behind Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso on 1m 37.836s, Magnussen worked down to 1m 37.664s for 19th.