Lewis Hamilton is in the best form of his life, according to the Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, after the British driver claimed pole for the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Wolff praised Hamilton’s response after discussions at the end of last season following the retirement of the world champion, Nico Rosberg.
“There was a point towards the end of the year where we sat down and it felt like a reset of the relationship,” Wolff said, of a season that ended with Rosberg pipping a clearly frustrated Hamilton to the championship and then retiring from their Mercedes team. “Some things came out which needed to be discussed and since then I have perceived that he has been in a really good place, he is happy, he is motivated and I believe I have seen the strongest Lewis on track that I have ever seen, consistently over the weekend.”
However, Wolff acknowledged that Mercedes were wary of the threat posed by Ferrari this season, after Sebastian Vettel pushed Hamilton in qualifying. “We knew that they were extremely strong,” the Mercedes team principal said. “You can see that it is very close between Ferrari and ourselves. It is going to be a hell of a ride over the next 20 races.”
In the buildup to the Formula One season-opener here in Melbourne, Hamilton and Vettel had both gone to some effort to cast the other as favourite for the sport’s new era. As it transpired when they finally went head to head in the first properly competitive session of 2017, it was Hamilton and Mercedes who still had the advantage, having already enjoyed a remarkable period of dominance in winning the drivers’ and constructors’ championships for the past three years.
But while Hamilton and the Silver Arrows taking pole in Albert Park – his sixth at the circuit – was a clear sign the team have not dropped the ball in adapting to the new regulations, it was heartening that Vettel pushed him so hard and better still that the German was optimistic that there was more to come on race day.
The new rules are a reboot for the formula, with a focus on making the cars faster, more physically challenging to drive and, it was hoped, to make the competition across the field much closer than it has been for the previous three seasons. Albert Park is not a typical circuit so reading too much into qualifying here is a dangerous game but that Ferrari have delivered on the form they showed in testing and have clearly closed the gap to their rivals is certainly a positive sign to take from what was a thrilling battle.
Hamilton said he was pushing hard to see off a determined resurgence by Ferrari and particularly from Vettel, to take the 62nd pole position of his career, continuing an exceptionally strong run in the single lap discipline, with the British driver having secured the top spot in the last four races of 2016. In the end just under three-tenths was the gap between the two drivers on their final laps in the third session.
“Our job is to put the car where it is most uncomfortable,” Hamilton said, having claimed pole at Albert Park. “We’re not there to make it sit on rails so we’ve got to take it over the edge or just hold it on the edge of that cliff through the whole lap and that’s the fun of what we do.
“Generally, it went very well and, of course, we can always try to improve. The laps are never perfect, there are little bits of time here and there – but very, very happy with how it’s gone. Now it’s really about focusing and making sure we do our homework tonight and making sure we’ve got an answer for these guys.”
The three-times world champion added: “It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. I am incredibly proud of my team, this rule change has been huge and it has been such a massive challenge and the guys have worked so hard to get the car where it is today. It’s great for us and for Mercedes, and it’s close between us all, it’s going to be a tight race this year.”
The new regulations had promised quicker cars, adding grip and downforce to increase the pace through corners and it has thus far delivered. Hamilton set a time of 1min 22.188sec on his final hot lap, the fastest recorded here in Melbourne with the comparative pole time here in 2016 of 1.23.837 also set by the British driver.
He had led the way over the first two practice sessions but that Ferrari would challenge and that the form they had shown in testing was no false dawn was clear when Vettel went fastest on Saturday morning in the final practice session. He was nearly half a second quicker than both the two Mercedes, topping the time sheets with a 1.23.380 at which point he had also beaten that fastest lap time, a 1.23.529, which the German set himself in 2011. Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas qualified in third place only three-hundredths back from Vettel – a good opening in his first competitive run for Mercedes but he was not happy with being unable to secure a front row lock-out for his team.
The huge numbers of local fans who have thronged Albert Park all weekend in greater numbers than last year will have to hope for a spectacular recovery drive from the Australian hope, Daniel Ricciardo, who put his Red Bull in the barriers. He overcooked it and lost the back end at turn 14, causing the final session to be red-flagged after only the top four had set their first times in Q3 and he will start from 10th.
Those first runs, however, had been electrifying – with Vettel initially pipping Bottas by just two-thousandths of a second only to see his time beaten by Hamilton by a further three-tenths. After Ricciardo’s car had been removed the session restarted and Vettel pushed as hard as he could but Hamilton had his lap nailed down with a consummate run that shows he has lost none of his edge after the disappointment of losing the world championship last season. However the German, who was unhappy in 2016 with the relative lack of performance his Ferrari showed, remained happy that this year they were in a much better position.
“We have good car, things are improving,” Vettel said. “The confidence in the car was there and we showed it, I was not entirely happy with my lap but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. I think we can do something in the race, the pace will be much better than in practice. We have gone through a lot of changes and the team has got better. People are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.”
He added: “We’ve felt quite good with the car straight away but we know there’s still a lot, a lot, a lot of work. I think the motivation is super-high in the factory. People really want to build a strong car and make sure we get back to where we belong, so Mercedes is doing well but we try to do better than them. The season is very long, so time will tell but I think for a start we’re very happy. I think qualifying on the first row is a very good opening to – as I said – a long, long season.”
Vettel’s team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was in fourth followed by the first of the Red Bulls in the hands of Max Verstappen. Romain Grosjean put in an absolutely sterling effort to secure the highest spot in the midfield for Haas in sixth, with the Toro Rossos of Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniil Kvyat in eighth and ninth respectively.
One of the other major changes this season was Pirelli using new fatter tyres that are designed to degrade at a slower rate than in previous years. Thus far the feedback on them seems to be positive. The fast laps were all set on the ultrasoft rubber and data from the practice sessions suggests they have been successful in making a more durable tyre – a one-stop race on Sunday is the likely strategy unless very high track temperatures are experienced at Albert Park.
Force India, who punched above their weight to secure fourth in the constructors’ championship last season, had a disappointing opening to their 2017 campaign, with Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon knocked out in Q2 in 11th and 14th respectively. Fernando Alonso was the best placed McLaren in 13th which is still a long way from where the team had hoped to be this season. Testing problems with their Honda power unit have left them struggling and they have not been able to bring a significant performance upgrade to Australia – a long Sunday afternoon awaits the Spaniard. Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg was in 12th with the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson 15th.
Lance Stroll, the Canadian rookie, will receive a five-place grid penalty after he had to change his gearbox having swiped the rear wheel of his Williams into the barriers on the exit of turn 10 that put his car in the wall during final practice. He qualified in 19th but will start from the back of the grid.
Sauber ran with the third Ferrari driver, Antonio Giovinazzi – making his F1 debut, having withdrawn Pascal Wehrlein on Saturday morning. The German had injured his back at the race of champions in January and missed the first pre-season test. He was concerned that his fitness levels were not up to the standard required to finish the race and has stood down until China.
Giovinazzi just missed out on making it to Q2 and will start in 16th. Kevin Magnussen in the Haas was in 17th, in front of a very disappointing 18th for Stoffel Vandoorne in the McLaren, while Britain’s Jolyon Palmer was 20th in the Renault.