Sakhir, Bahrain: Nico Rosberg looks to be the driver to beat in qualifying after posting the fastest time in final practice on Saturday at the Bahrain Grand Prix where security remains tight amid expectations of further anti-government protests.
Rosberg, who won the Chinese Grand Prix last week for his first Formula One victory, clocked 1 minute, 33.254 seconds in his Mercedes around the 5.4-kilometre Bahrain International Circuit. That was 0.147 seconds quicker than two-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and 0.409 seconds better than Vettel's Red Bull teammate Mark Webber.
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who was fastest in first practice, settled for fourth. Ferrari's troubles continued with Fernando Alonso finishing 10th and Felipe Massa 16th.
Pastor Maldonado of Williams was penalized five grid places for Sunday's race after needing a new gearbox. He finished down in 11th in final practice as drivers struggled with tough conditions on the track, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius and winds whipping up sand from the surrounding desert. The heat on the track was especially hard on tyres, with several drivers wearing them down quicker than expected.
Security was tight following days of sometimes violent anti-government protests in Bahrain. There were checkpoints on the roads leading to the track. Additional security troops have been deployed around the circuit and across the capital, Manama. But there were no signs of protests early on Saturday anywhere near the circuit.
The 2011 race was cancelled due to anti-government protests and demonstrators — including tens of thousands on Friday — have called for the race to be cancelled until the ruling Sunni dynasty enacts meaningful reforms aimed at addressing the concerns of the Shiite majority and ends its rights abuses.
On Saturday, anti-government groups called for more protests.
Social media sites urged demonstrations as part of an opposition effort to use the worldwide spotlight on the race to press demands for a greater political voice. Bahrain's Shiite majority claims it faces widespread discrimination at the hands of the Western-backed Sunni monarchy.
At least 50 people have died in the unrest since February 2011.