Lewis Hamilton took pole position, but Daniel Ricciardo won Australia's admiration, and many hearts, on Saturday when they traded fastest laps in a thrilling, dramatic and rain-drenched conclusion to qualifying for Sunday's Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
Finally, after the phoney war of pre-season testing and two days of smoke-and-mirrors work in the practice sessions, there was a pure demonstration of speed, courage and total commitment amid plumes of spray and intermittent downpours at an enthralled Albert Park.
Hamilton, showing the razor-sharp reflexes and natural intuition for racing that has already won him one Drivers’ World Championship, in 2008, emerged as the fastest man with a late best lap for Mercedes in one minute 44.231 seconds.
It came just seconds after Ricciardo had driven his Red Bull to the top with a lap that was only three-tenths of a second slower, using 'intermediate' wet-weather tyres on a drying track. And this in his first competitive outing for the champion team. No wonder so many Aussies leapt from their seats.
That effort by the Perth man appeared to have been gloriously successful for a crowd of more than 79,000 spectators who had braved Melbourne's full menu of seasonal weather in a single day to cheer an Australian to pole in his home event for the first time.
In the end it wasn’t – but the cheering continued. Dan the Man had, after all, split the in-form Mercedes team by pushing Hamilton's team-mate Nico Rosberg down to third on an afternoon of dazzling debuts that also saw three World Champions fail to take part in the top ten shootout.
Jenson Button, the 2009 champion, qualified 11th for McLaren, Kimi Raikkonen, of 2007 vintage, was 12th on his return to Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel, in the other Red Bull, was 13th. It was hardly the showing expected of the four-time champion, who will start 12th after a grid penalty for Valtteri Bottas for a gearbox change.
"I heard all the cheering on my cool-down lap," said Ricciardo, with a smile as wide as Port Phillip Bay. "I hope I hear it again tomorrow." If anyone winced, it was the Mercedes men. They know they face a battle.
"Dan did a great job on the intermediate tyres," said Hamilton. "It is no surprise. He is a very talented driver and he has a good head on his shoulders... It was a close call for the tyres. The conditions made it extremely difficult so I hope it is better tomorrow for the fans, but also for us."
If Ricciardo's performance in trouncing Vettel was breath-taking, so were those of 21-year-old Dane Kevin Magnussen, who qualified fourth for McLaren, and 19-year-old Russian Daniil Kvyat, who was eighth for Toro Rosso.
These two rookies proved they have what it takes to shine in any conditions on a day when Hamilton secured his 32nd pole – equalling fellow-Englihshman Nigel Mansell – and his third in Melbourne, where on Sunday he will seek his second Australian victory.
Between them, on a grid of rich promise for an intriguing race, will be two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari, Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne in his Toro Rosso and German Nico Hulkenberg of Force India. Behind them, Brazil's Felipe Massa and his Williams team-mate Valtteri Bottas of Finland completed the top ten.
Lotus finished fourth in last year's Championship but will start this one by filling the back row of the grid, Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean failing to produce one meaningful lap between them in a forlorn appearance in Q1.
The last word, however, belonged to Ricciardo. "I dont know yet what Sebastian's issues were," he said. "I saw he was about two seconds off my pace. We'll have to see what happened..."