At this rate, Lewis Hamilton could break Michael Schumacher’s record of 68 pole positions by July. For all the far-reaching rule changes that have transformed Formula One this winter, Mercedes’ supremacy has survived unscathed, as has their triple world champion’s stunning one-lap pace.
This was pole No 62 for Hamilton and a testament to his extraordinary race-craft, as he produced the fastest lap ever witnessed here at Melbourne’s Albert Park by almost 1.5 seconds.
For those anxious about another season of Silver Arrows dominance, there was some succour in the sight of Sebastian Vettel splitting the Mercedes drivers with a last-gasp surge for Ferrari, leaving Valtteri Bottas in third on his debut for the champions.
The Finn looked crestfallen at being shut out from the front row, but Vettel, who once did a memorable stand-up impression of the robotic Kimi Raikkonen, mischievously intervened during the press conference to say: “Have you ever been to Finland? That’s normal. He looks overjoyed.”
Alas, this Australian Grand Prix did not yield any qualifying glory for homegrown favourite Daniel Ricciardo, who, in a burst of hot-headedness late on, spun off into the gravel. It left the way clear for Raikkonen to claim a place on the second row alongside Bottas, while Romain Grosjean delivered a remarkable display for Haas to qualify in sixth. As a measure of the Frenchman’s breakthrough for the American team, his team-mate, Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen, could only manage 17th.
For Hamilton, there was profound relief that the wholesale reinvention of F1 regulations for 2017, creating more aggressively-designed cars and much higher cornering speeds, had not changed the hierarchy on the grid too much. “I am proud of my team, because the changes have been huge,” he said. “I woke up feeling as if I was not quite right, but I could not be more pleased with how it has gone.”
The experience for McLaren, by contrast, was chastening. Neither Fernando Alonso nor Stoffel Vandoorne could advance beyond the second part of qualifying, with the Spaniard muttering sarcastically to his engineers over the in-car radio that only rain could rescue them. Alas, the capricious Melbourne weather did not come to their aid, as their problematic Honda engines sabotaged their chances once more.
Final positions after qualifying:
1 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1min 22.188secs
2 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari 1:22.456
3 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes GP 1:22.481
4 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:23.033
5 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull 1:23.485
6 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas F1 1:24.074
7 Felipe Massa (Bra) Williams 1:24.443
8 Carlos Sainz (Spa) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:24.487
9 Daniil Kvyat (Rus) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:24.512
10 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull No Time
11 Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India 1:25.081
12 Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Renault 1:25.091
13 Fernando Alonso (Spa) McLaren 1:25.425
14 Esteban Ocon (Fra) Force India 1:25.568
15 Marcus Ericsson (Swe) Sauber-Ferrari 1:26.465
16 Antonio Giovinazzi (Ita) Sauber-Ferrari 1:26.419
17 Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas F1 1:26.847
18 Stoffel Vandoorne (Bel) McLaren 1:26.858
19 Lance Stroll (Can) Williams 1:27.143
20 Jolyon Palmer (Gbr) Renault 1:28.244
Note: Lance Stroll has a five-place grid penalty due to a gearbox change after third practice.