Ferrari's Felipe Massa was an unlikely pace-setter on the first day of action at the inaugural Indian Grand Prix.
The Brazilian eclipsed Red Bull's double world champion Sebastian Vettel by 0.088 seconds with Ferrari team-mate Fernando Alonso third.
Lewis Hamilton was fourth with McLaren team-mate Jenson Button sixth.
But Hamilton has been after failing to slow down for yellow caution flags in the first session.
That means no matter how fast Hamilton goes during qualifying he cannot start in pole position for the second race in a row.
The Englishman and Sauber's Sergio Perez were both penalised for ignoring double-waved yellow flags - used to warn the field to slow down - when marshals were on track to retrieve Pastor Maldonado's stricken Williams in first practice.
McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale described the penalty as "fair" but added that Hamilton said he had made a mistake.
The stewards have punished Hamilton more than any other driver this season; most notably he received two drive-through penalties in Monaco.
Hamilton ended the day 0.748 seconds adrift of Massa's surprise benchmark of one minute 25.706secs with Button over a second off the mark.
"I genuinely think they [Ferrari] are very fast," said Button. "Whether they are that much faster I don't know.
"On my lap, I had traffic in the last sector plus a few other things and for my new tyre run I had a new set-up change which didn't work for me.
"When we went back for the long run, the car felt very good and I'm very happy with the pace.
"There is a lot of dust but surprisingly there is quite a lot of grip out there.
When asked whether the team's focus is now on him following Hamilton's penalty, Button said: "No, I've won from last before so the focus is still on both cars getting as far up the grid as possible.
"Even if you start down in fifth or sixth you can still win on a circuit like this."
F1 entered the unknown as the sport made its debut in India at the Buddh International Circuit built 25 miles outside the capital city of Delhi.
The undulating, high-speed circuit, designed by F1's favourite architect Hermann Tilke, sits in the midst of farmland and the drivers battled with dust and lack of grip on the 'green' track.
Jaime Alguersuari crashed out when he slid his Toro Rosso into the barriers late on in the first session and in second practice Jerome d'Ambrosio found the barriers at high-speed at the exit of Turn 10.
A lot of drivers were also caught out at Turns Eight and Nine, including Vettel who had a rough ride across the grass - some of which BBC 5 live commentator David Croft said was in fact earth that had been sprayed with green paint.
Alonso only completed four laps after stopping out on track with an engine issue in the first session but the Spaniard found his rhythm later on and was just 0.224secs off's Massa's leading time.
"Overall it was a good day," said Alonso. "We had an engine problem in the first session but it didn't affect our programme much as we know in the first session the track conditions weren't good enough.
"Today was a good day in terms of performance. Both cars are in the top three and we have no big issues with the balance of the car.
"We are more optimistic today than yesterday but we know the potential of McLaren and Red Bull and we know that in qualifying they will be strong and favourites for pole."
Massa added: "I think the car was good and competitive. We'll see tomorrow how Red Bull and McLaren were running in terms of fuel.
"The circuit was very dirty and off-line it was very difficult but it's a nice track.
"The asphalt is so smooth and the [tyre] degradation is much lower than expected."
The front wing on the Ferrari has, however, been raising eyebrows as it appeared to visibly flex. Last season, suspicions about the flexibility of the Red Bull front wing led to governing body the FIA increasing front-wing load tests.
Michael Schumacher is the most famous F1 driver in India but Mercedes chose to focus on long runs in the second session and the seven-time world champion, who had been fifth fastest in the morning, ended the day 21st.
It was a positive start to the weekend for Force India at the race they regard as their spiritual home grand prix with Adrian Sutil seventh and Paul di Resta ninth.
There was an amusing tussle between Sutil and Indian Karun Chandhok, who lost out on a race seat at his home race this weekend as Team Lotus decided to stick with regular driver Jarno Trulli.
Chandhok had tried to be the first car out of the pit lane on Friday but Sutil beat him to it so Chandhok made a cheeky pass on his installation lap to make sure he recorded the first lap time on the Indian circuit.
"It was a nice little present from the team to the fans to let me do one timed lap," said Chandhok, who was still more than a second slower than Trulli in first practice.
"From an emotional point of view it was a nice little moment and I was pleasantly surprised how quick the circuit was."
The session was stopped for five minutes shortly after Chandhok and Sutil's tussle when a stray dog wandered onto the track.
Renault driver Bruno Senna has had first-hand experience of the seriousness of those sort of interventions on track as he had to retire from a GP2 race after colliding with a dog at Istanbul Park three years ago.