The Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton will start the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on pole position after a tense final qualifying session with the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, as home favourite Daniel Ricciardo crashes out for Red Bull.
All eyes were on track for the first qualifying session of the new season, and after Hamilton dominated proceedings on Friday many wondered if there was anyone who could stop him getting pole on Saturday. By Q3 the shootout for pole seemed to be a three-way fight between the two Mercedes and Vettel. Ultimately Hamilton came out on top, managing an impressive 1:22.188 when it counted to take the first pole of the new season, while the Ferrari of Vettel lines up alongside him in second. Vettel and Hamilton last started a race alongside each other on the front row at the 2015 Bahrain Grand Prix, a race Hamilton went on to win. However, there is a slight relief for the rest of the field as Vettel was less then three tenths off of Hamilton’s pole time. The Ferrari did have a habit of being weaker in Qualifying last year, which cost them sometimes as ultimately their race pace was good. Suggesting tomorrows race may not be a simple slam dunk for the Mercedes team.
“The team is getting stronger and the people are fired up,” said Vettel. “We are improving.”
As for the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas he could only manage third behind Vettel, separated by less than two hundredths of a second. It is worth noting that Bottas did make a small mistake on his flying lap that may ultimately have cost him the chance to start ahead of Vettel. However, third on the grid is the highest position Bottas has ever achieved around Albert Park. Vettel’s Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen will start fourth.
The Red Bull of Max Verstappen starts fifth after pushing the car to the absolute limit, trying to eek out everything from the car. It is clear right now that Red Bull are not on the same level as Ferrari or Mercedes in terms of pace. While the front four did push, they always looked more comfortable than either Red Bull driver on their flying laps. But while Max Verstappen kept his car just about on track, home grown hero Ricciardo was not so lucky. The Australian spun out at turn 14 during the climax of Q3, bringing out the red flags as they attempted to clear away his car. The chances are Ricciardo will start outside of the top ten, as it looks likely a new gearbox is required due to the crash damage, meaning he will have a five place grid penalty.
Ricciardo = devastated
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 25, 2017
That left the Haas of Romain Grosjean to take an unexpected sixth place for the team ahead of the Williams of Felipe Massa, who managed seventh on his return to the sport following the shortest retirement ever it seems. The two Toro Rosso’s were eight and ninth respectively, with Carlos Sainz ahead of Daniil Kvyat, while Ricciardo rounded out the top ten.
McLaren had a slightly better day with Fernando Alonso, managing 13th on the grid, but according to Alonso that was all the car could realistically achieve. The team also didn’t have it all their own way, with a fuel flow issue for rookie Stoffel Vandoorne resulting in the young Belgian driver not making it out of Q1. He will line up 18th on the grid tomorrow.
It was a tough day for fellow rookie Lance Stroll as well. The young Canadian crashed in final practice, wrecking his gearbox and giving the Williams mechanics an impressive rebuild job to get the car ready for Qualifying. When Q1 was over Stroll only managed to get his Williams to 19th place, he will however start the race last tomorrow due to a five place gearbox penalty. He will however have Renault’s Jolyon Palmer alongside him to keep him company. Following limited running in Free Practice 1 and an accident in Free Practice 2 on Friday the Englishman has looked to be on the backfoot ever since, struggling with the car. Today’s less than graceful exit in Q1 as the slowest driver was the culmination in a difficult weekend so far.
“The car was awful,” Palmer lashed out to the media after the session. “Today was a disaster. The brakes are terrible, the balance is pretty horrible and the traction is terrible.” Apart from those slight issues though Palmer seems more than happy with the car. However his words may not be what his mechanics want to hear, after a monumental effort to fix his car for qualifying today.
One team who will be happy with their driver’s efforts will be Sauber, as super sub Antonio Giovinazzi managed 16th on the grid after just an hour of running in FP3 this morning. The Ferrari young driver even looked like me might beat his more experienced team mate Marcus Ericsson into Q2, but a small mistake at the end of his flying lap denied him the opportunity. Giovinazzi has been called up to replace the injured Pascal Wehrlein this weekend, who felt he was not at the peak performance he could have been due to a “training deficit.” Wehrlein injured his back in January’s Race of Champions and has been nursing the injury ever since, he missed the first winter test in Barcelona as he recovered from his injury but returned for the second week and took part in both practice sessions in Melbourne on Friday. He completed 22 laps in FP1 and 30 laps in FP2, finishing 18th in both sessions.
“My fitness level is not as it should be for a full race distance because of my training deficit,” Wehrlein said. “I explained the situation to the team yesterday evening. Therefore, the Sauber F1 Team has decided not to take any risks. It is a pity, but the best decision for the team. If I think after a few laps that’s painful, I’m losing concentration, I’m losing focus and this would be too high risk.”
Australian GP Qualifying Results
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:22.188
2. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, 1:22.456
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 1:22.481
4. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 1:23.033
5. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, 1:23.485
6. Romain Grosjean, Haas, 1:24.074
7. Felipe Massa, Williams, 1:24.443
8. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, 1:24.487
9. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, 1:24.512
10. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, No time
11. Sergio Perez, Force India, 1:25.081
12. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, 1:25.091
13. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, 1:25.425
14. Esteban Ocon, Force India, 1:25.568
15. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, 1:26.465
16. Antonio Giovinazzi, Sauber, 1:26.419
17. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, 1:26.847
18. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, 1:26.858
19. Lance Stroll, Williams, 1:27.143
20. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, 1:28.244
Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Racing Press Release