The Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton proved it was business as usual as he stormed to pole position for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, after blowing away his rivals with a blistering final lap in qualifying.
For a brief moment there was hope of a close fight between Hamilton in his Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel in his Ferrari, and Max Verstappen in his Red Bull; as the three of them were separated at the top of the table by six hundredths of a second after the first Q1 runs.
Hamilton found the speed he needed on the final run however, and improved by nearly eight tenths of a second. Firmly putting him on pole and leaving his closest competitors struggling to get close to his time. This is the seventh time Hamilton has secured pole position at Albert Park, a feat only managed by one other driver, the great Ayrton Senna. Hamilton may find though that being on pole is detrimental here, as in the last eight years the driver starting on pole position have only succeeded in winning the race twice.
Kimi Raikkonen will line up alongside Hamilton on the front row after a stunning lap by the Finn in his Ferrari. Raikkonen has been on the pace all weekend, consistently outperforming his four-time world champion team mate Vettel. While his first run in final qualifying was not spectacular, he made it count on the second run when it was needed to take second on the grid for the race.
“Today we did not really know what to expect from this first qualifying, it was a bit of an unknown. But then I was pretty happy with the car, the feeling was ok. The gap to our rivals is probably bigger than we wanted, but it was not a very straightforward day either. This is a very special circuit in many ways.” Said Raikkonen in a team press release after the session.
“I think we have to wait for the next few races to have a clear picture and understand where the teams are exactly. For sure there are things to improve to go faster; I know there are areas where I could improve on my lap times. This is what we have got today, a decent result in quite tricky conditions. Tomorrow we’ll put our maximum effort into the race”.
Raikkonen’s team mate Vettel will line up third with Verstappen fourth for Red Bull, after two rather disappointing second runs for them.
Vettel has admitted he made a mistake at Turn 13 on his final lap which cost him the time he needed for at least second position as well as challenging Hamilton for pole. While Verstappen also ran wide on his last attempt to topple Hamilton from the top spot.
Ferrari remain confident however that their long-run form, according to their data and analysis, will offer Mercedes a more competitive fight on Sunday. Whereas Red Bull will be hoping their gamble on strategy pays off for Verstappen. The Dutchman will start the race on the slower but longer lasting supersoft tyre, and therefore will be running a contra strategy to those around him.
Verstappen’s team mate, and home hero Daniel Ricciardo, will also start the race on the supersoft tyre after setting the fifth fastest time. The Australian will be demoted to eight place though after earning a controversial grid penalty during Friday’s free practice sessions for running too quickly under red flag conditions in Friday practice.
“They could have given a reprimand, they could have given something [else],” a rather disappointed and upset Ricciardo said after. “To give me a grid penalty before the season has started is ****house.”
In the battle to be best of the rest behind the big three teams in the ultra-competitive midfield. it was the Haas of Kevin Magnussen who triumphed. The Danish driver set the sixth fastest time of the session ahead of his team mate Romain Grosjean in seventh, and the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg in eight. Though all three of them will move up one space on the grid thanks to Ricciardo’s penalty.
Carlos Sainz will start ninth in the sister Renault, as both Haas and Renault prove their pace in pre-season testing was not merely a fluke.
However, the big talking point of Q3 was the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. And as discussed in out track preview, even the best of drivers can get caught out on the unforgiving Albert Park track. The Finn was just beginning his first flying lap in Q3 when he ran wide into turn one. He got on the power just off the apex, touched the still wet grass with his inside tyres, before becoming a passenger in his own car after losing control as he then smashed in into the barriers. The crash was huge, with the force of the accident resulting in the rear wing coming off of the car, and the session was temporarily red-flagged.
The damage to the W09 may prove very costly for Bottas, not just because he failed to set a timed lap in the session. The chances are the gearbox would not have survived a crash like that, meaning he will have a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. This may even become a pitlane start as the chassis may be a write off too. Regardless of where he will start tomorrow the Mercedes mechanics will have a long night with plenty of work to do to get the car ready for Sunday.
“I started the first timed lap and used a bit more track in the exit of turn 1, went a bit too wide and was surprised it was still a bit damp from the rain,” Bottas told the media after. “I lost the rear of the car, tried to correct it but it happened so quickly and there was nothing I could do really.”
Outside of the top ten Fernando Alonso qualified 11th with his team mate Stoffel Vandoorne alongside him in 12th, for McLaren’s first qualifying session with new Honda engines. While it is short of the top ten position the team believed they could achieve, Alonso still seemed happy with the result. Especially after highlighting the fact he thought this was going to be the weakest race of the season for McLaren as they get to grips with their new engine.
“It’s what we deserve and I’m happy with it,” said Alonso. “We have huge potential to unlock in the car. It’s going to be a different race for us – more in attacking mode and it’s going to be fun. Especially if it rains tomorrow, it’s going to be amazing for the show.”
Behind the two McLaren’s in 13th was the Force India of Sergio Perez, with his team mate Esteban Ocon in 15th. The two were split by the Williams of Lance Stroll, who put in a decent lap at the end of Q1 to make it through to the second part of qualifying.
Propping up the grid are the Toro Rosso-Hondas of Brendon Hartley in 16th, and Pierre Gasly in 20th who made a mistake on his final Q1 run. The team seemed disappointed that their partnership with Honda did not lead to better results in qualifying. They were joined by the Sauber’s of Marcus Ericsson in 17th and Charles Leclerc in 18th. While Williams rookie Sergey Sirotkin finished his first ever F1 qualifying session early as he managed 19th on the grid.
With the potential threat of a wet race tomorrow, cars on differing strategies, and a tight midfield that will likely see a lot of scarps for glory, this is one race you are not going to want to miss.
Australian Grand Prix grid
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes: 1:21.164
2. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari: 1:21.828
3. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari: 1:21.838
4. Max Verstappen, Red Bull: 1:21.879
5. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull: 1:22.152 (Ricciardo will be demoted three places)
6. Kevin Magnussen, Haas: 1:23.187
7. Romain Grosjean, Haas: 1:23.339
8. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault: 1:23.532
9. Carlos Sainz, Renault: 1:23.577
10. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes: No time set (Will potentially start from the pitlane)
Out in Q2
11. Fernando Alonso, McLaren: 1:23.692
12. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren: 1:23.853
13. Sergio Perez , Force India: 1:24.005
14. Lance Stroll, Williams: 1:24.230
15. Esteban Ocon, Force India: 1:24.786
Out in Q1
16. Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso: 1:24.532
17. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber: 1:24.556
18. Charles Leclerc, Sauber: 1:24.636
19. Sergey Sirotkin, Williams: 1:24.922
20. Pierre Gasly, Toro Rosso: 1:25.295