SAO PAULO, Nov 23, 2012 (AFP) - Lewis Hamilton topped the times for McLaren in Friday's opening free practice session for this weekend's title showdown Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos.
The 27-year-old Briton, making his 110th and final appearance for McLaren before leaving for Mercedes next year, clocked a best time of one minute and 14.131sec to outpace nearest rival and defending drivers world champion German Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull.
Vettel's only remaining title rival, capable of stopping him becoming at 25 years the youngest triple champion in Formula One history, two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, was down in fifth place.
Vettel's Red Bull team-mate Australian Mark Webber was third quickest ahead of Hamilton's McLaren partner and fellow Briton Jenson Button. The top four drivers were very closely matched and were separated by just 0.086 seconds from Hamilton, who won last weekend's United States Grand Prix ahead of Vettel.
Alonso and his Ferrari team-mate local hero Brazilian Felipe Massa, chasing his third win on home soil, were fifth and sixth ahead of Frenchman Romain Grosjean of Lotus, Briton Paul Di Resta of Force India, Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado of Williams and German Nico Hulkenberg in the second Force India.
On a near perfect day at the majestic, sweeping Interlagos circuit, set in a natural bowl nestling in the hillside in the suburbs of Sao Paulo, the air temperature was 22 degrees Celsius and the track temperature 32 degrees.
This meant that the drivers had to work hard with their tyres in the conditions as they prepared for Sunday's 71-laps race, some of them also battling their emotions as the season draws to a thrilling conclusion.
Vettel has a 13-points lead ahead of the race and has only to finish in the top four to end Alonso's hopes, even if the Spaniard wins. But with rain forecast over the weekend, much remained open to speculation.
Seven-time champion Michael Schumacher in his final race before retiring, was down in 11th place for Mercedes with the 43-year-old's team-mate and fellow-German Nico Rosberg in 18th. Finn Kimi Raikkonen, winner of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix earlier this month, was 16th for Lotus.
Hamilton, who reportedly burst into tears during an interview with BBC television on Thursday when he was reflecting on his life with the McLaren team, raced with a new design on his helmet including a slogan that read: 'Thank you McLaren'.
Below the times for the session:
|2||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing||1:14.140||0.009||35|
|3||2||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing||1:14.198||0.067||34|
|8||11||Paul di Resta||Force India||1:14.738||0.607||34|
|10||12||Nico Hulkenberg||Force India||1:15.050||0.919||32|
|15||16||Daniel Ricciardo||Toro Rosso||1:15.587||1.456||35|
|17||17||Jean-Eric Vergne||Toro Rosso||1:16.048||1.917||35|
|19||20||Giedo van der Garde||Caterham||1:16.460||2.329||32|
|23||22||Pedro de la Rosa||HRT||1:17.678||3.547||15|