Melbourne Qualifying: Hamilton blows them away

Lewis Hamilton powered to a record seventh pole position around Albert Park, claiming the top spot start for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix by a whopping six-tenths of a second over Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen while the world champion’s teammate Valtteri Bottas crashed into the wall during the early stages of Q1.

Mercedes finally revealed what they really have in their package and it was alarming viewing for their rivals given the gap was so large, suggesting that the Silver Arrows outfit have kept their powder dry thus far, and what they have at their disposal in the W09 is yet another formidable weapon for their drivers.

Sebastian Vettel raised Ferrari hopes at the end of Q2, when he topped the timing screens, but with everything dialled up Hamilton in his Mercedes were simply on another level when it mattered in Q3 popping a remarkable 1:21.164 – the fastest lap ever around the lakeside venue – which in the end was too good for anyone else and also a second quicker than his pole-winning time last year.

Hamilton summed up his season-opening afternoon, “You would think that with the results we had it would be the norm but it isn’t, it’s so intense and my heart is racing. I’m so happy with that lap. It was such a nice lap. I’m always striving for perfection and that was as close as I could get. I’m always in party mode.”

“What was surprising was to see how quick the Ferraris were. During that lap I was in the same modes as before but it was hooking up the tyres and getting the lap together,” added Hamilton.

Last year’s race winner Vettel had to settle for third on the grid this time out, narrowly denied a front row start by his Ferrari teammate Raikkonen who found a strong vein of form at the start of his 18th season in the top flight.

The veteran Finn said, “It was a pretty decent job. Obviously the lap time difference is quite big. It wasn’t a straight forwards session with the rain this morning. We have to be pretty happy with where we are starting but there is an awful lot of work to be done to improve things.”

Afterwards, Vettel told reporters, “I think we can be happy. Yesterday I wasn’t happy, I didn’t really feel the car. It just kept coming better in Qualifying. On the last lap I had a bit of a moment into 13, I tried to brake really late and it didn’t work. It was really close and it’s exciting for us when it’s that close.”

“Shame that Lewis had quite a big gap at the end but I guess his lap was pretty good. Looking forward to tomorrow, I think we improved the car and we’ll see what happens tomorrow. It’s very close, we saw yesterday on the long runs that pace is very close.”

“It’s not the easiest place to overtake but who knows. We have an opportunity at the start and the race, who knows. I’m really happy for the team, it’s a good result. Let’s get going,” added Vettel.

Max Verstappen was fourth fastest in the Red Bull, but worth mentioning that a mere five-hundredth of a second separated the Dutchman from Raikkonen, with Vettel sandwiched between them on the timing screens.

Local hero Daniel Ricciardo, starting the session with a grid penalty thanks to a free practice infringement, was fifth fastest, albeit three tenths down on his teammate.

The Aussie reflected, “I thought [the grid penalty] was unjust. A penalty sure, there are reprimands, fines, other things but to shoot me in the ankle before the season has started – I thought they could have done better.”

“From fifth we go to eighth. The first parts of qualifying were OK but at the end we missed a few tenths. It looked like it was all in the first sector. I don’t really know with the balance what more I could have done there. For sure it was frustrating a little bit.”

“We’re starting on the supersofts and hopefully that works to our favour and later in the race we can make some things happen,” added Ricciardo.

Best of the Rest were the Haas duo with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean six and seventh respectively, confirming that the VF18 is indeed a strong car out the box.

Also showing handy pace were the Renault boys, Nico Hulkenberg ending eighth fastest and a tad quicker than teammate Carlos Sainz in eighth.

Bottas did not set a time in Q3 and was tenth on the timing screens when the chequered flag waved to end the session. The Finn did himself no favours when he clipped the apex of the Turn 1 and Turn 2, right-left complex.

This unsettled the car and before Bottas knew it he slammed the wall on the exit of Turn 2, the Mercedes number 77 significantly damaged as a result. Shortly before, in Q2 he was, he was a couple of hundredths shy of his teammate.

It was a historic qualifying for McLaren, doing so with Renault power for the first time in their illustrious history, but the cold facts are that they were the slowest of the similarly powered cars and failed to make it out of Q2.

Fernando Alonso just missed out on Q3 in 11th, while teammate Stoffel Vandoorne was 12th. The gap between them and Red Bull, who they are hoping to challenge this year was a sobering 1.2 seconds, but only a tenth or so down on the Renault works team. 

Alonso said, “It’s what we deserve and I’m happy with it. I think we have huge potential to unlock in the car. We still have some issues before we unlock everything so I think in the next coming races we can look forward to the season very optimistic.”

“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,” added the Spaniard.”

Rookies Charles Leclerc (Sauber), Sergey Sirotkin (Williams) and Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) were 16th, 19th and 20th respectively, the Sauber anb the Williams drivers participating in their first ever grand prix qualifying.

Qualifying in Melbourne provided an indication of the ‘hot-lap’ pecking order and it is obvious that Mercedes are still top of the pile in qualifying by over half a second, Ferrari next best shaded by Red Bull by the narrowest of margins.

Then a half second gap to Haas, followed closely by Renault and McLaren, who in turn are ahead of Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso and Sauber.

Final word to Mercedes F1 chief Niki Lauda, “I don’t care [about Ferrari’s pace before], there is seven-tenths difference now, it is incredible. They have done a job which is unbelievable. The first set of tyres Lewis could not use to their full potential. The second run was the best tyres, best car and the time difference.”

“Unfortunately Valtteri has to think about it because he could have been right there. I will motivate him and bring him up again. He did everything right but unfortunately one thing not. We are going to bring him back,” added the Austrian F1 legend.

Blow-By-Blow Report

Räikkönen set the pace early in Q1, eventually rising to a time of 1:23.096 ahead of  Ricciardo and Verstappen. The order changed when Hamilton began to put together laps and five minutes before the flag the defending champion jumped to the top of the order with a lap of 1:22.824.

That put him 0.272 ahead of Räikkönen who finished ahead of  Vettel and the Red Bulls Verstappen and Ricciardo.

At the lower end of the order it looked like Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley was going to prop up the table, as he sat in P20 ahead of the final runs. The New Zealander rose to the challenge, though, and put in a superb final flyer to climb up the order.

His time of 1:24.532 was only good for P16, however, and he missed out on progress to Q2 by just 0.029s, as Force India’s  Ocon scraped through in P15.

Eliminated behind Hartley were the Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Leclerc in P17 and P18 respectively, while Williams’  Sirotkin went out in P19 ahead of the second Toro Rosso of Gasly who had an off on his final run.

Q2 saw Verstappen set the first quick lap on supersofts, but that of the ultra soft-shod Räikkönen quickly bypassed his lap of 1:22.830. This time top honours went to Vettel, with the Ferrari driving rising to P1 with a second-run time of 1:21.944.

That put him a tenth clear of Hamilton, who stayed on his first-run time of 1:22.051. Bottas took third ahead of Verstappen and Ricciardo. Alonso was the main driver to miss out. Ahead of the final runs the Spaniard sat in P7, but once the final times came in the McLaren driver had been edged out to P11 by a tiny margin by Hulkenberg.

Alonso’s McLaren team-mate  Vandoorne has meanwhile eliminated in P11 ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez, Stroll and Ocon.

Q3 began in dramatic fashion, with the first runs being interrupted by a red flag being shown when Bottas crashed heavily in Turn 2. The Finn lost control on the approach to the corner and broadsided the wall, causing severe damage to his Mercedes.

When running resumed Hamilton led the way, with a time identical to his Q2 best. That left him just three-hundredths of a second clear of Vettel, with Verstappen third ahead of Räikkönen and Ricciardo.

In the second runs, though, Mercedes turned up the heat and Hamilton simply powered ahead, taking almost nine-tenths of a second out of his first-run time to claim his 73rd career pole position with a time of 1:21.194.

Räikkönen took second place, though the Finn was 0.664 of a second behind Hamilton. Vettel was third, just one-hundredth of a second behind his Ferrari team-mate.

Ferrari were pushed hard, however, by Red Bull Racing who looked closer to the Italian team than last season. Verstappen qualified just four-hundredths of a second behind Vettel, with Ricciardo fifth on a time of 1:22.152.

Behind them, Haas confirmed their dark horse status, with Kevin Magnussen taking sixth place ahead of team-mate Romain Grosjean. Hulkenberg was eighth ahead of Renault team-mate Sainz, while the unfortunate Bottas qualified 10th.