McLarens zoom out of nowhere to set the early pace Down Under

The smart money was on Red Bull and Ferrari dominating and Mercedes running third as McLaren struggled, but when practice for the first race of the Formula One season began here in Melbourne's Albert Park yesterday it was the McLarens that ended the day fastest.

After Mark Webber had shown the way around for Red Bull in the first session, in which Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton had shown early on that a much simpler exhaust and a revised undertray had transformed their hitherto troublesome McLarens, it was the silver cars from Woking that dominated in the evening session.

But in an indication of how close things could be again this year, only 0.429sec covered the top five as Fernando Alonso lapped his Ferrari in 1min 26.001sec and the world champion Sebastian Vettel his Red Bull in 1:26.014, while Webber's 1:26.283 was good for fifth. Added to that, Michael Schumacher, looking like his old competitive self for the first time in a long while, posted 1:26.590 for Mercedes ahead of Ferrari's Felipe Massa on 1:26.789.

Both McLaren drivers were wary about reading too much into their performances, which came after upgrades improved the car after some dismal showings in testing.

"We've got reliability, which is great," Button said. "That's something we haven't had in the winter so finally to have a car that can run for as many laps as we want it to is great. You are able to do set-up work and improve the car. A positive day.

"I still see no use in looking at the times. People are doing different things and there are so many variables now with KERS [Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems] and rear wings. We are not going to get carried away."

Hamilton was also cautious. "We were just focusing on our programme and I have no idea what the others are doing," he said. "Our car feels like it's a bit of an improvement from testing, which is positive. Whether or not we are as competitive as the others, we will wait to see tomorrow."

Alonso was also minded to be sceptical, as were the Red Bull drivers who were not able to use their drag reduction rear wings until the closing stages of the second session, just before a brief shower slowed proceedings. "Nothing new yet and what else would you expect?" the Spaniard said.

"These two free practice sessions have not actually revealed the real relative strengths of the teams: this morning Red Bull went well and in the afternoon it was McLaren's turn, with us and Mercedes always in the mix. There are so many teams who could be in with a chance of going for the win and therefore it's obvious that it will be necessary to have a good Saturday, without any mistakes, if you want to start from the front row."

Besides trying out the rear wings for the final 30 minutes, teams were anxious to assess wear rates of the new Pirelli tyres.

"The behaviour of the Pirellis seems a bit different here to what we saw in testing," Alonso said, "partly because the track surface has very different characteristics. As far as strategy is concerned, we will need to be very flexible during the race, because at the moment, we know too little about the tyres to be able to say with certainty on which lap it will be best to stop.

"From what we have seen today, maybe we can do 10 laps on one set of tyres, or maybe 30. I am happy with the way the car is going: at the start there was a bit of understeer and we still are a way off from having perfect grip at the front, but it went better than I was expecting."

Scotland's Paul di Resta made an assured debut in the Force India, especially when he beat his more established team-mate Adrian Sutil into 16th. For some reason the Silverstone-based team elected to let test driver Nico Hulkenberg do the first practice session in Di Resta's car rather than Sutil's. The German knows his way blindfold round here, but if that episode fazed Di Resta it didn't show and after crowding Michael Schumacher for a while he outpaced Sutil with a lap of 1:28.376 to 1:28.583 in a highly auspicious start to his pukka racing career.

"I felt quite comfortable with the new systems on the car, but until I get into a competitive situation it is still too early to say how we'll do," Di Resta said. "I'm excited about tomorrow, but at the same time there is a job to be done and my focus is to achieve the best result I can for the team."