Ferrari started practice for this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix as they concluded it in China with a one-two.

On this occasion, however, it was Felipe Massa who led the way ahead of Fernando Alonso around the desert-based Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, 20 miles south of capital Manama.

The suggestion is, in the wake of Alonso's victory in Shanghai last Sunday, Ferrari are steadily taking up the mantle as the team to beat this season.

Qualifying and their one-lap pace remains an issue, but come race day the Maranello marque have proven so far they have the staying power for a long-haul title battle.

Massa, a former two-time winner in 2007 and 2008, posted a lap time of one minute 34.487secs as track temperatures hit 45 degrees with an air temperature of 33, by far the hottest so far this year.

Ferrari had cleverly waited until an hour into the 90-minute session, with much of the dust and sand removed from the track, before finally showing what they are capable of.

Alonso, a three-time winner here, finished just 0.077secs adrift, with Mercedes' Nico Rosberg the best of the challengers to the Ferrari pair as the German was 0.134secs adrift of Massa.

With Rosberg and team-mate Lewis Hamilton clearly running different strategies, the Briton - third in his last two races - was down in 13th position, 1.305secs off the pace.

Triple world champion Sebastian Vettel, who again leads this year's championship by three points to Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen, was fourth on the timesheet, three tenths of a second down.

Force India, who performed well at this circuit last year and with a car that seemingly likes the heat, had Paul Di Resta and Adrian Sutil in fifth and eighth positions, with the former half a second back.

In between were McLaren's Jenson Button and Red Bull's Mark Webber, the latter starting Sunday's race with a three-place grid penalty after a collision with Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne in Shanghai.

The Lotus duo of Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean completed the top 10, with the latter just over a second down.

Heikki Kovalainen, back with Caterham this week in a reserve and technical development role after being dropped by the team at the end of last season, was 20th, 3.9secs behind Massa, and 0.6secs adrift of team-mate Charles Pic.

Kovalainen later claimed the Caterham is much harder to drive than last year.

For once, it was the Marussia pair at the back of the field, with Max Chilton five seconds off the pace, whilst reserve Rodolfo Gonzalez was a further 0.8secs behind.