(CNN) -- Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher impressed on his eagerly-awaited return to Formula One at this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix.
Schumacher finished third fastest in second free practice on Friday with his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg setting the pace ahead of 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren.
Schumacher clocked a time of one minute 55.903 seconds, just under half a second behind Rosberg. Reigning world champion Jenson Button was fourth fastest for McLaren.
Sebastian Vettel ran in fifth for Red Bull while on his Williams debut, promising prospect Nico Hulkenberg made it four Germans in the top six.
He was followed by Ferrari's Felipe Massa, whose teammate Fernando Alonso was ninth fastest, sandwiching an improved run from Renault's Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov.
The two free practices are the first official action of the new F1 season with grid positions for Sunday's race decided in qualifying on Saturday.
Force India's Adrian Sutil led the way in the morning session, where times were generally slower.
The 19-race extravaganza begins and ends in the Middle-East with the final race at the spectacular Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi in November.
There are new teams, drivers and rules, but 41-year-old former champion Schumacher has been the main talking point in the paddock as he takes to the wheel of a Mercedes with compatriot Rosberg as his teammate in a powerful Silver Arrow combination.
Schumacher is reunited with his technical guru at Ferrari, Ross Brawn, whose team bearing his name, claimed the drivers and constructors titles last season before being taken over by Mercedes.
The German ace is confident his new team can prove a force again this season and he is relishing the challenge.
"Our entire team is extremely motivated, as am I," he told his personal Web site www.michael.schumacher.de.
"The season will be long and hard, no doubt about that, but I love this fight -- it is because of this fight that I came back to Formula 1," he added.
The other major talking point in the pre-season buildup has been the teaming of Button with fellow Englishman Hamilton at McLaren.
Button left Brawn GP after wrapping up his first title and how he shapes up against the precocious Hamilton will be monitored closely.
In another major driver move, two-time world champion Alonso left Renault for Ferrari where he will line-up alongside Massa, happily returned to the grid after his horrific crash in Hungary last July.
Ferrari impressed in pre-season testing while much is also expected at Red Bull where Vettel is hoping to go one better after finishing runner-up to Button in last season's championship race.
Teammate Mark Webber of Australia also has title pretensions.
Illustrating the ongoing strength of F1 despite the global financial troubles, 12 teams and 24 drivers will fill the grid for the first race at the Sakhir circuit.
They face new rules which prohibit in-race refueling, which makes tire choice and wear a major factor to achieve success.
A new points system is also in place with 25 points awarded for a winner and a seven-point gap to the second-placed driver, placing a bigger emphasis on victory over consistency.
Last season, Button and the Brawn GP team, helped by their revolutionary rear diffuser, won six of the first seven races, but experts are predicting a much closer tussle this year.