Sebastian Vettel continued to set the pace for Red Bull here in Shanghai on Friday afternoon, but instead of being two seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren the gap was only 0.166s, and Jenson Button was only 0.247s away.
On a track that was still very slippery, as several drivers, Vettel among them, illustrated with off-course moments, the reigning world champion lapped in 1m 37.688s compared to the McLaren drivers’ respective bests of 1m 37.854s and 1m 37.935s.
Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher showed dramatically improved form for Mercedes with the fourth and fifth best times of 1m 37.943s and 1m 38.105s, with Felipe Massa next up in the faster Ferrari on 1m 38.507s. Adrian Sutil got going for Force India after missing the morning session when Nico Hulkenberg took over, and lapped in 1m 38.735s for seventh, ahead of Nick Heidfeld, who had another adventurous session with another front wing-bending off before he improved to 1m 38.805s for Renault. Vitaly Petrov backed him with 1m 38.859s, then Mark Webber filled 10th on 1m 39.327s after a troubled session which included parts falling off his Red Bull RB7.
Kamui Kobayashi was an off-roader but managed 1m 39.538s for Sauber ahead of Williams’ Pastor Maldonado on 1m 39.667s. Sebastien Buemi was 13th on 1m 39.771s in the leading Toro Rosso, ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso whose final effort to go fast was thwarted by traffic. The Spaniard had to be satisfied with 1m 39.779s, with Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari on 1m 39.828s in front of Williams’ Rubens Barrichello on 1m 39.925s and Sauber’s Sergio Perez on 1m 39.953s.
Heikki Kovalainen was 18th, a second clear of Lotus team mate Jarno Trulli, with 1m 40.476s and 1m 41.482s apiece, then came the HRTs. Narain Karthikeyan ran all session and had a spin shortly after recording 1m 42.902s. Vitantonio Liuzzi had technical problems on his F111 and literally only did a lap right at the end, so 1m 43.850s was good in the circumstances and moved him ahead of the troubled Virgins of Jerome D’Ambrosio on 1m 44.008s and Timo Glock on 1m 44.747s.
Paul di Resta did not run at all, his Force India bothered by fuel pressure problems.