- Associated Press - Thursday, March 14, 2013

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (AP) - Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel set the fastest time in Friday’s opening practice session for Formula One’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

The three-time reigning world champion immediately picked up where he left off last season, setting a time of 1 minute, 27.211 seconds around the Albert Park circuit, putting him ahead of the Ferrari pair of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.

Lewis Hamilton was fourth fastest in his first official outing for his new team Mercedes, with Red Bull’s Mark Webber fifth in front of his home fans and Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen sixth.

Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg was seventh, just 0.8 seconds off Vettel’s time in a closely fought session in sunny but mild conditions.

Much interest in the first session of the season was focused on the performance of the higher-degradation tires, which drivers had voiced concerns about during preseason testing.

All teams used the medium compound, and Sauber rookie Esteban Gutierrez was heard on the radio telling his pit crew that the tires were “quite consistent.”

The Albert Park track, a street circuit, has very low grip in the early stages of the weekend before rubber is gradually laid down leading up to Sunday’s race, and a few drivers ran wide as they tested the limits of the track and the new tires.

Force India’s Paul di Resta had the biggest slide, going sideways into a gravel trap at turn six, but his car didn’t appear to be damaged.

Di Resta finished half a second behind teammate Adrian Sutil, who was an impressive eighth upon his return to the team following a year on the sidelines.

McLaren pair Jenson Button and Sergio Perez were ninth and 11th respectively, separated by Lotus’ Romain Grosjean. McLaren has had a more thorough redesign of its car during the offseason, compared to the minor evolutions of the other top teams, and is expected to have more development work to do at the early races.

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