There has been huge anticipation for what is expected to be one of the most open starts to a Formula One season in recent memory, but in Friday’s two practice sessions for the Australian Grand Prix it was the dominant team and driver of the past three years, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, which again led the way.

It is widely perceived that there are five teams—Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes—that are competing to be at the front of the grid with the gap between them too close to call before the opening weekend of the season. But Vettel’s performance on Friday marks him out as a favorite in Melbourne as he chases a fourth straight world title

Ahead of the opening qualifying session of the season on Saturday, Vettel was quick to suggest that people should not get carried away with the Red Bull’s practice performance.

“The car is doing exactly the things that I like, but also that you should not read too much into the Friday times,” he said, according to the official Formula One website. “Of course it is better to be at the top of the time sheet than somewhere in the midfield.”

The big story of the offseason was Lewis Hamilton’s switch from McLaren to Mercedes, with many observers questioning why the former world champion had chosen to join a team that appeared, at least in the short term, to be less competitive.

But the Mercedes performance in testing has been surprisingly good and Hamilton was also encouraged by Friday’s practice.

"The real thing is that we are competitive,” he said, according to Sky Sports. “I am massively excited to be up there. To be as competitive as we are today is a real plus.

"It's too early to say [if a podium is possible]. Red Bull are quick, the Ferraris are quick, and Lotus are up there. I'm not sure what is happening with the McLarens but I'm sure they will fix it because they are a brilliant team.”

In contrast, things do not looks so positive for Hamilton’s former team McLaren. Jenson Button was down in ninth and 11th place after the two practice sessions and he admits that the there is much work to be done.

“Clearly, we’re not as quick as we’d like to be, so our task now is to work hard to find out why our car is like it is, particularly in terms of ride and downforce,” he said, according to the official Formula One website.

“Our short runs weren’t particularly encouraging, to be honest. We’re a couple of seconds off the pace, by the looks of things, and that’s always going to be disappointing for a team as successful as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes.”

With rain a possibility on Saturday it promises to be an intriguing first qualifying session of 2013.

Where to watch: Qualifying for the Formula One Australian Grand Prix is scheduled to get underway at 2 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the NBC Sports Network. A live stream, which you view at your own discretion, will be available here