Vettel, who has never won his home race, clocked a quickest lap of 1:30.416 set on the soft compound tyres with just under an hour remaining to top the time charts from British GP winner Nico Rosberg, team-mate Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean.
Kimi Raikkonen was fifth fastest in the second Lotus, ahead of the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, who looked good on the longer stints. But Lewis Hamilton’s pace on the soft compound appeared to drop off alarmingly due to rear degradation and he finished eighth.
Hamilton started the session as the morning’s pace setter but, as teams swapped the medium compound for the quicker wearing option tyre, his times dropped in comparison to the Red Bulls, the Englishman losing as much as nine seconds in as many laps.
Vettel showed good early pace, jumping to the top of the times with 54 minutes of the session remaining. And although Rosberg and Webber were close on their opening soft stints, his time was never seriously troubled.
With half an hour of the session remaining, the majority of runners switched to long run simulations, Red Bull and Ferrari both looking strong on the medium tyre.
Thankfully, there was precious little on-track incident to talk about, aside from a number of drivers locking up into the tricky Turn 1 section, the stronger Pirelli Kevlar belt tyres passing their first big test of the weekend after the Silverstone debacle.
And there was also disappointment for Marussia’s Jules Bianchi who withdrew from the session with a stomach upset after completing just 10 laps.
Lewis Hamilton led a Mercedes 1-2 from team-mate Nico Rosberg as the new Pirelli Kevlar belt tyres enjoyed a trouble-free first outing.
Hamilton clocked a 1:31.754 to finish ahead of his Mercedes team-mate and Red Bull’s Mark Webber, but the big story was that there were no problems with the new Pirelli rubber following the catastrophic blowouts at Silverstone last weekend.
There was disappointment for Fernando Alonso. however, as an electrical failure on his Ferrari meant he had to sit out the session having not completed any timed laps.
The day began with the news that drivers threatened a boycott if there was any repeat of the tyre failures that blighted the British Grand Prix. But the new Kevlar belted compound suffered no problems whatsoever in the opening session, with every runner opting for the medium compound tyre.
But there was a problem with the ECU on Alonso’s Ferrari, the Spaniard grinding to a halt at turn five on his opening lap. He returned later but the problem persisted and the Ferrari was forced to pit again without completing a timed lap.
As is the norm in the opening session, the big hitters bided their time to go out, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel setting the early benchmark times half an hour into the session.
But their time at the top was short lived as the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Rosberg traded fastest times at the top, Hamilton bettering the quickest effort of FP1 in 2011 with 40 minutes remaining. As at Silverstone, the Mercedes looked impressive and with track temperatures predicted to be lower than at Silverstone, the team looks a strong early contender for back-to-back wins.
Webber bettered his mark to finish third-fastest from the Force India of Adrian Sutil and Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus, Felipe Massa offering some comfort to Ferrari with the sixth fastest time.
Sebastian Vettel, who is yet to win his home Grand Prix, was eighth fastest in a session devoid of any major incident, save Alonso’s mishap and several drivers locking up into Turn 1.