McLaren's world champion Lewis Hamilton returned to the scene of his worst Formula One crash on Friday to set the fastest time in German Grand Prix free practice.

The 24-year-old Briton, who crashed heavily at the Nuerburgring in his debut 2007 season, was surprisingly ahead of the championship pace-setters with a best lap of one minute 32.149 seconds in the afternoon.

The performance was a rare positive for the champion, who has struggled to score just nine points in eight races in an uncompetitive car and is 55 points adrift of championship-leading compatriot Jenson Button.

The last time he topped a practice session was in Bahrain on April 24 and McLaren have not finished in the points in their last four races.

Germany's Sebastian Vettel, hoping to be his country's first home winner since Michael Schumacher retired, was second quickest for Red Bull in 1:32.331 after Australian team mate Mark Webber topped the morning timesheets in 1:33.082.

The 22-year-old German won the last race in Britain, his second victory of the season, but has not competed previously in Formula One at the track in Western Germany's wooded Eifel mountains.

Brawn GP's Button, who had suggested on Thursday that Webber could be more of a threat than Vettel, was second fastest in a damp and chilly first session and then third after lunch when it was mostly dry.

Webber, still chasing his first win after seven and a half years in the sport, was fourth in the afternoon.

‘There's no real pressure on me at all, I'm very happy how the season's gone,’ he had told reporters on his arrival at the circuit.

‘I want to get that win, it will happen when you probably least expect it. Silverstone was one that a lot of people had money on me for and I finished second. We'll see what happens here. I'm looking forward to it.

‘I've had a lot of pretty good races here,’ he added. ‘We know what we have got to do.’

Italian Giancarlo Fisichella was a surprise fifth for Force India, yet to score their first point in Formula One, in the morning while team mate Adrian Sutil was sixth in the afternoon.

Button's Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello, 23 points adrift of the Briton (64 points) after eight races and just two clear of Vettel, was 12th and seventh respectively.