Lewis Hamilton set himself up perfectly for a strong qualifying run at the Chinese Grand Prix by topping the final free practice session at Shanghai.
The McLaren driver must serve a five-place grid penalty because of a gearbox change, but confirmed his status as qualifying favorite as he bids to limit the damage caused and secure what would become sixth place on the grid.
Hamilton's fastest time came during a qualifying simulation on the soft Pirelli rubber late in the session, as he eclipsed his teammate Jenson Button by just over a tenth of a second.
After a quiet start to the session, with the first timed lap not being completed until almost 15 minutes had elapsed, the teams and drivers set about their run plans on prime rubber. As well as evaluating overnight setup changes, teams also needed to use the running to understand how the increased track temperature, which was much higher than on Friday, affected tire characteristics and grip levels, the latter reckoned to have reduced.
Red Bull's Mark Webber emerged with the fastest lap from those completing their initial prime runs in the first half-hour. He set a mark of 1m36.879s to shade Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg by 0.1sec. But Hamilton also showed his pace on with fuel by lapping 0.375sec off Webber's pace with a time set on his first flying lap. A subsequent run on mediums suggested that he could easily have gone quicker, even though he didn't complete what would have been a faster lap.
Sebastian Vettel also turned in a decent lap on his first proper prime run, which came later than most, lapping 0.160s off his team-mate. Vettel opted to use the Red Bull exhaust setup used in the first part of preseason testing, which although it produces less downforce appears to offer him a more consistent and well-balanced car, while Webber stuck with the latest-specification.
Mercedes pairing Michael Schumacher and Rosberg were the first of the frontrunners to complete a qualifying simulation on soft rubber with around 20 minutes to go. Rosberg took top spot with a lap of 1m36.389s, shading his 43-year-old teammate by 0.123sec.
Button jumped ahead of both on his qualifying simulation with 10 minutes remaining, setting his best time on the third lap of his run.
In the flurry of qualifying simulations that followed in the final five minutes, Hamilton made his move and put together the fastest times in all three sectors to take top spot despite a lock-up at Turn 14.
Neither Red Bull driver appeared to show their full qualifying hand, with Webber ending up fifth and Vettel ninth, but Williams man Pastor Maldonado and Sauber duo Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi both did times good enough for the top 10.
The top 18, propped up by Ferrari's Felipe Massa, were covered by just 1.891sec, suggesting that today's qualifying session will be a very competitive one for the leading nine teams.
Pos Driver Team Time Laps
1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m35.940s 13
2. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m36.093s + 0.123 12
3. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m36.389s + 0.449 16
4. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m36.512s + 0.572 17
5. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m36.635s + 0.695 16
6. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m36.765s + 0.825 17
7. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m36.781s + 0.841 19
8. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m36.880s + 0.940 17
9. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m37.039s + 1.099 15
10. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m37.061s + 1.121 17
11. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m37.237s + 1.297 16
12. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m37.274s + 1.334 19
13. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m37.288s + 1.348 16
14. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m37.425s + 1.485 14
15. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m37.465s + 1.525 12
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.493s + 1.553 13
17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.628s + 1.688 14
18. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m37.831s + 1.891 14
19. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m38.701s + 2.761 19
20. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m39.198s + 3.258 19
21. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m39.796s + 3.856 18
22. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m40.048s + 4.108 17
23. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m41.263s + 5.323 14
24. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m41.499s + 5.559 18
All Timing Unofficial