Heikki Kovalainen waited until the very last moment of the first free practice session for the Japanese Grand Prix to go quickest around a wet-but-drying Suzuka circuit.
Until the Finn took the checkered flag, Kazuki Nakajima looked likely to enjoy a piece of home glory as the Williams driver took the top spot with just minutes to spare.
The 24-year-old Japanese appeared to time his final attempt on intermediate tires to perfection as he set a fastest time of 1m40.648s. But the lap times were falling all around him as drivers found ever more grip on the drying track, and Kovalainen was one of them – his 1m40.356s lap settling the matter.
Wet-weather maestro Adrian Sutil was another to get bumped by the Finn, and the Force India driver ended up third, having been fastest himself earlier in the session.
While the session began with a great deal of standing water on the track, it quickly dispersed as several of F1's Suzuka rookies got down to the business of learning the daunting track – Lewis Hamilton and Kovalainen among them. In fact, the McLaren drivers were the early pace-setters, until Sebastian Vettel, then Fernando Alonso moved to the top.
Hamilton responded halfway through the 90-minute session only to find himself demoted again by Nakajima. With 20 minutes to go, Kovalainen moved to the top and though briefly deposed by Sutil, remained in control until all the antics of the final 10 minutes.
When the order had shaken out, behind the top three, Giancarlo Fisichella looked to have garnered some confidence in the Ferrari F60 to go fourth fastest, ahead of a rapid Sebastien Buemi, while Hamilton was eventually sixth.
Alonso was seventh, despite a run across the gravel at the hairpin early on in the session. The man he replaces at Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen, was just behind him in eighth.
Rubens Barrichello and Nico Rosberg completed the top ten.
Despite the weather, there were surprisingly few incidents, with Fisichella replicating Alonso's moment at the hairpin late on, and Vitantonio Liuzzi having a lurid moment as he ran wide across the curbs at Spoon.
Kamui Kobayashi ended the session 19th on his debut, but impressed through the session and was only outpaced by Toyota teammate Jarno Trulli in the final five minutes.
Pos Driver Team Time Laps
1. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:40.356 24
2. Nakajima Williams-Toyota (B) 1:40.648 + 0.292 18
3. Sutil Force India-Mercedes (B) 1:40.806 + 0.450 14
4. Fisichella Ferrari (B) 1:40.985 + 0.629 27
5. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:41.421 + 1.065 26
6. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes (B) 1:41.443 + 1.087 15
7. Alonso Renault (B) 1:41.532 + 1.176 22
8. Raikkonen Ferrari (B) 1:41.577 + 1.221 25
9. Barrichello Brawn GP-Mercedes (B) 1:41.821 + 1.465 18
10. Rosberg Williams-Toyota (B) 1:42.188 + 1.832 20
11. Webber Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:42.332 + 1.976 10
12. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes (B) 1:42.475 + 2.119 15
13. Trulli Toyota (B) 1:42.657 + 2.301 13
14. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari (B) 1:42.667 + 2.311 27
15. Kubica BMW Sauber (B) 1:42.833 + 2.477 16
16. Heidfeld BMW Sauber (B) 1:42.977 + 2.621 14
17. Vettel Red Bull-Renault (B) 1:43.218 + 2.862 11
18. Button Brawn GP-Mercedes (B) 1:43.318 + 2.962 17
19. Kobayashi Toyota (B) 1:43.407 + 3.051 16
20. Grosjean Renault (B) 1:43.572 + 3.216 22
All timing unofficial