Michael Schumacher was back up to speed for Mercedes on Friday in a first free practice session dominated by McLaren’s world champions Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
Hamilton, the 2008 champion beaten into second place by his fellow-Briton at the last race in China, lapped the Circuit de Catalunya in one minute 21.134 seconds. Button, overall leader after winning two of the first four races of the season, was 0.538 seconds slower but still second quickest.
Schumacher, the sport’s most successful driver who has struggled to match his young German teammate Nico Rosberg so far in his comeback season at the age of 41 and after three years out, was next.
Reverting to the chassis that he had used in pre-season testing, and armed with a longer wheelbase and new aerodynamic parts, the German appeared to find the changes very much to his liking at a circuit that has handed him six of his 91 wins.
The seven times champion was 0.582 off Hamilton’s pace, and ahead of both the Red Bulls of Australian Mark Webber and Germany’s Sebastian Vettel.
Rosberg, who has been on the podium in his last two races while Schumacher retired in Malaysia and laboured home 10th in China, was sixth.
Fernando Alonso, preparing for his first home grand prix as a Ferrari driver, was eighth on the timesheets.
While Friday practice provides a morale boost, Saturday’s qualifying will be crucial with the winner in Barcelona starting on pole position for nine years in a row. Further back, Austrian Christian Klien made a return to Formula One after signing a reserve driver role with newcomers Hispania (HRT), taking Indian Karun Chandhok’s place in morning practice.