The 26-year-old, clearly in the mood to compete on the edge, clocked a best time of 1min 23.350secs as he outpaced nearest rival and defending champion German Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull by two-tenths of a second.
Two-times champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso wound up third for Ferrari on his 30th birthday, narrowly ahead of Australian Mark Webber of Red Bull.
Webber had a major ‘off’ during the session when he ran wide over a wet patch of run-off area, lost control and hit the barriers. His car suffered a broken front wing and front left wheel puncture.
Hamilton’s McLaren team-mate and fellow-Briton Jenson Button was fifth fastest, the 2009 champion out-speeding Brazilian Felipe Massa, back on the track where he suffered a life-threatening accident in 2009, in the second Ferrari.
German Nico Rosberg was seventh ahead of his compatriot and Mercedes team-mate seven-times champion Michael Schumacher.
Mexican Sergio Perez was ninth for Sauber and Russian Vitaly Petrov, who has drawn a vast following of fans to the race, was 10th for Renault.
Just as Hamilton was still in a determined and triumphant mood, so Vettel still appeared to be disenchanted and uncharacteristically downbeat.
Asked what happened in Germany, where Hamilton had won and he had missed a podium finish for the first time this year in 10 races, he said: “There’s no point trying to find excuses.
“But I didn’t feel comfortable Friday to Sunday. It was tricky with the conditions, it was very cold, Mark Webber was quicker all weekend and I never really found good balance.
“We have understood most of it but now we need to refocus on this race. We want to be on the top again.”