Lewis Hamilton smashed Albert Park’s lap record again and again in dramatic style on Saturday as he secured a pulsating pole position for Sunday’s 2017 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
In a high-speed and record-breaking qualifying session, the three-time champion steered his new era Mercedes to his sixth Melbourne pole and his fifth pole position in a row, including four last year. It was also his 62nd career pole and fourth in succession at Albert Park.
After a brief spell of drizzle and an accident that wrecked Australian Daniel Ricciardo’s hopes, a dramatic session reached a tense conclusion with four-time champion and former Albert Park record-holder German Sebastian Vettel snatching second place on the grid for Ferrari.
Hamilton’s near-flawless lap in his new ‘fatter and faster’ car was recorded in one minute and 22.188 seconds, leaving him 0.268 seconds clear of second-placed Vettel.
That signalled a Mercedes v Ferrari front row and the same on row two after Finn Valtteri Bottas, who replaced 2016 world champion German Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes team qualifying third ahead of Finn Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari.
Dutchman Max Verstappen was fifth for Red Bull ahead of Frenchman Romain Grosjean of Haas, Brazilian Felipe Massa of Williams, Spaniard Carlos Sainz and his Toro Rosso team-mate Daniil Kvyat, and the luckless Ricciardo who will start from 10th position.
The Q1 session began with Alonso leading his McLaren Honda team-mate Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne out of the pit lane as the lights turned green with rain threatening.
After hours of heavy humidity, a shower had felt inevitable and the official risk of rain was forecast at 40 per cent.
In their early runs, the two Mercedes men were soon on top of the times, Bottas narrowly ahead of Hamilton, with Vettel third, but none of them matching the speeds of the earlier FP3 session.
The luckless McLaren team suffered another setback after only nine minutes when Vandoorne was called in. “Box this lap,” he was told. “We have a fuel flow issue…”
Hamilton then went top with 1:24.191 as Ricciardo roused Australian hopes when he improved to fourth before Raikkonen slotted into second in his Ferrari, nearly three-tenths shy of Hamilton’s pace.
When the flag fell, it signalled an early exit for Italian Andrea Giovinazzi, the Ferrari reserve driver drafted in to replace the unfit German Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber, in 16th place.
His was an excellent effort for a debutant, but out he went with Dane Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne of McLaren-Honda, Canadian rookie Lance Stroll of Williams – who had crashed in the morning -- and Briton Jolyon Palmer of Renault.
At the top, Hamilton was quickest while Vettel, who had earlier broken his own Albert Park lap record, settled for eighth and was the only man not to use a set of the ultra-soft Pirelli tyres.
The German changed all that at the start of Q2 when he went out with Hamilton and Raikkonen in pursuit of Bottas, who was first out. After their resurgence in practice, Ferrari clearly had a taste for speed again.
Bottas immediately lapped in a new track record time of 1:23.215 ahead of Hamilton’s 1:23.251 with Raikkonen and Vettel third and fourth for Ferrari and the Red Bulls, led by Ricciardo, fifth and sixth.
By the end of Q2, all of the top four had clocked times that were faster than the record set by Vettel, with Red Bull, in 2011.
The final flurry saw some positional switches that saw Sainz squeeze through in 10th place and led to five more missing the cut for the top-ten shootout.
These were led by Mexican Sergio Perez of Force India exiting in 11th place with German Nico Hulkenberg of Renault, two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso of McLaren-Honda, Frenchman Esteban Ocon in the second Force India and Swede Marcus Ericsoon of Sauber.
The mounting speed continued into Q3 with the top six on fresh ultra-soft tyres and a light drizzle beginning to fall – a threat that was apparently dismissed as the lap records fell again before Ricciardo lost control and crashed out at Turn 14.
His incident came with only six minutes remaining when he lost the rear end and spun backwards into the barriers. “Ok, I’m alright,” he said. “I’m sorry, guys…”
As the red flag came out, Hamilton was back in the Mercedes garage having clocked another all-time best Albert Park lap in 1:22.496, a full second faster than the old 2011 record set by Vettel.
Both Vettel and Bottas, in second and third places, also broke the 1:23 barrier in a remarkable spell of speed – the trio relishing the pace of their new machines with the fastest laps of all time at the Melbourne track.
Eight minutes later, with just seven remaining, the session resumed and a tense high-speed scrap resumed with Bottas briefly going top before Hamilton smashed his record again to take pole.