Lewis Hamilton is gunning for his third straight pole position of the season at the Chinese GP. Getty Images
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton laid down a marker in first practice for the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix on Friday, banging in the quickest lap of the session after spending much of the morning in the garage.
The 2008 world champion, last year's winner and the only driver to have triumphed twice in Shanghai, completed only seven laps but topped the timing screens with a best time of one minute 37.106 seconds.
His hopes of securing a third pole in three races have already vanished however after his team said on Thursday that the Briton will pick up a five place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change.
With a damp start to the session after overnight rain, Hamilton appeared happy to save his tyres in the knowledge that he will need every strategic advantage on Sunday if he is to celebrate a first win of the season.
Mercedes' German pairing of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher, whose 91st and last career win came at the Shanghai circuit with Ferrari in 2006, were second and third quickest respectively.
Rosberg, whose team saw off a protest by rivals Lotus on Thursday against their controversial rear wing, was 1.010 off Hamilton's pace.
Mexican Sergio Perez, who took his Sauber to a stunning second place in Malaysia last month, was fourth ahead of Japanese team mate Kamui Kobayashi.
Champions Red Bull had Australian Mark Webber and Germany's double champion Sebastian Vettel sixth and seventh while Ferrari's championship leader Fernando Alonso lapped 11th fastest.
Vettel, who has yet to win this season or qualify on the front row after dominating 2011, was using a different exhaust set-up to Webber.
Force India's French reserve Jules Bianchi made his practice debut, replacing Britain's Paul Di Resta for the session.
Other less familiar Friday names included Finnish reserve Valtteri Bottas for Williams and Dutch driver Giedo van der Garde for Caterham.