AUSTIN, TEXAS, Nov 16, 2012 (AFP) - Sebastian Vettel, chasing his third consecutive world title, topped the times for Red Bull in Friday's opening free practice session for this weekend's United States Grand Prix.
The 25-year-old German, who needs to outscore nearest rival Fernando Alonso by 15 points to become Formula One's youngest triple champion, produced his customary blistering pace in his first run at the brand new Circuit of the Americas 25 kilometres out of downtown Austin.
In his 100th Grand Prix event, Vettel looked ominously quick as he clocked a best time of one minute and 38.125 seconds around the 5.516-km track to wind up top of the time screens ahead of Lewis Hamilton of McLaren by more than 1.4 seconds.
Title rival Alonso of Ferrari was third fastest, a further 0.8 seconds adrift, ahead of Jenson Button in the second McLaren, Mark Webber in the second Red Bull and Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari.
If it did little else, the opening session proved that Vettel and Red Bull will have few problems adapting to the demands of the circuit and that the usual suspects -- Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari -- will be the teams to beat.
Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus, winner of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix two weekends ago, was first out on to the 'green' circuit on a morning of many minor incidents as the drivers learned their way round the spectacular sweeping track.
German Nico Hulkenberg of Force India was the first driver to enjoy a major spin, but most of the field endured a variety of unscheduled excursions off the ashphalt, notably at Turn 19 where Hamilton, Vettel and Massa all slithered wide as they under-estimated the fast left-hand corner.
Hamilton looked likely to be the session-topper until, with only three minutes to go, Vettel blitzed to his fastest lap and left his rivals with little chance to respond.
Hulkenberg ended up seventh fastest ahead of Kamui Kobayashi of Sauber, Nico Rosberg of Mercedes and Sergio Perez of Sauber.
|1||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing||1:38.125||30|
|5||2||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing||1:40.650||2.525||30|
|7||12||Nico Hulkenberg||Force India||1:41.023||2.898||29|
|11||11||Paul di Resta||Force India||1:41.783||3.658||29|
|12||16||Daniel Ricciardo||Toro Rosso||1:41.825||3.700||28|
|13||17||Jean-Eric Vergne||Toro Rosso||1:41.833||3.708||29|
|23||22||Pedro de la Rosa||HRT||1:46.917||8.792||13|
|24||23||Qing Hua Ma||HRT||1:48.559||10.434||19|