Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have struck the first major blow in 2019, Hamilton taking pole for the Australian Grand Prix from team mate Valtteri Bottas, a full 0.7s up from the third-placed Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton clocked the lap record of Albert Park with a 1m 20.486s to snatch the initiative away from Bottas and record his sixth consecutive pole at the circuit, and a record-equalling eighth at the Australian Grand Prix.
With many having believed that Mercedes and Ferrari were nip-and-tuck going into the session, it was a tough showing for the Scuderia, with Vettel’s team mate Charles Leclerc ending up P5 for the team having been pipped by Red Bull's Max Verstappen at the death.
Romain Grosjean was a strong sixth, the Frenchman within 0.4s of Leclerc’s time and one place ahead of his team mate Kevin Magnussen as Haas capitalised on their strong pre-season showing.
McLaren rookie Lando Norris was another star of Saturday, making it through to Q3 in his first ever F1 qualifying session – in contrast to his team mate Carlos Sainz, who dropped out in Q1 – and winding up P8 in his MCL34.
Alfa Romeo's Kimi Raikkonen and Racing Point's Sergio Perez completed the top 10.
Local favourite Daniel Ricciardo was unable to make it into Q3 on his first quali outing for Renault, finishing up in P12, one place down on his team mate Nico Hulkenberg, while Pierre Gasly had a terrible start to his Red Bull career proper, failing to make it out of Q1 in his RB15.
Red Bull Racing
QUALIFYING HIGHLIGHTS: 2019 Australian Grand Prix
AS IT HAPPENED
Q1 – Leclerc shades Hamilton as Gasly drops out
As all 20 cars headed out on track for the first part of qualifying, it was Leclerc who left it till late in the session to put himself top in Q1 for Ferrari, edging Hamilton by just 0.026s. With the track evolving rapidly throughout the segment, Pierre Gasly was the big shock exit, Red Bull seeming to miscalculate the knock-out delta and failing to send out the Frenchman, leaving him P17 in his first qualifying for the team as a result.
Robert Kubica was last for Williams, one place behind team mate George Russell, and compounded his team’s woes by clattering the wall at Turn 10 and getting a right-rear puncture as he tried to improve.
Carlos Sainz will also have been disappointed to find himself eliminated, especially given that his team mate Lando Norris, on his qualifying debut, wound up an impressive ninth - although Kubica recovering from his puncture impeded Sainz.
Q2 – Hamilton heads Bottas while home hero Ricciardo exits
Hamilton headed a Mercedes one-two in Q2, setting a new Albert Park record with a 1m 21.014s. Ferrari appeared to struggle in the segment, Leclerc in P4 behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and some 0.7s off Mercedes’ pace, while Vettel was lucky to escape unscathed after running very wide at Turn 12 on his final run, ending up P6.
There was local heartbreak as Daniel Ricciardo dropped out along with his Renault team mate Nico Hulkenberg, while both Haases, the Alfa Romeo of Kimi Raikkonen, the McLaren of Lando Norris and the Racing Point of Sergio Perez progressed to Q3.
Q3 – Magnificent Hamilton extends pole run in Australia
So it was 1-1 across the first two segments between Ferrari and Mercedes going into Q3 – but who would rise to the top in the one they all really cared about? The answer was emphatically Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton once again looking in scintillating form around Albert Park to record the sixth consecutive pole here for him and Mercedes, and extend his career tally to 84.
In doing so, he also matches the records of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher for the most pole positions at one circuit with eight – Senna’s own record being for Imola, Schumacher’s for Suzuka.
Bottas was only a tenth off his team mate, and had been sitting pretty in first after the first Q3 run, but in the end he had to settle for second best. Ferrari in the end were nowhere near the front row. Vettel’s P3 time was 0.704s adrift of Hamilton’s best – although he managed to finish two places up on team mate Leclerc. The first signs of the pace in the Red Bull RB15 indicate that, as expected, it looks to be the third-quickest car in the field, as Verstappen split the red cars, 0.824s off Hamilton.
So, after a long wait over the winter, it seems we finally have our answer for who has the advantage heading into 2019. Qualifying, however, is one thing - racing quite another. And let's not forget - Vettel won from P3 in Melbourne 12 months ago...
The key quote
“This couldn’t be a better way to start the year. Valtteri was doing some incredible laps out there so I had to pull out something special at the end to stay ahead.
“The second lap was definitely a lot better than the first, which is not always the case. The first lap I made mistake which is unusual for me. OK, I brushed it off and kept moving. We just kept working away at our pace and laps through weekend. Coming from Barcelona, we made some big steps forward in the last couple of days with set up. We brought it here and it seems it worked.” – Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
ONBOARD: Lewis Hamilton's Australia Pirelli pole position lap
So qualifying has established some sort of pecking order going into the race – but can Mercedes maintain their advantage with a car that, as Red Bull team boss Christian Horner noted, looks to be “difficult to drive”? We’ll find out on Sunday, with lights extinguished at 1610 local time – that’s 0510 UTC. And if you’re hoping for rain to spice up what looks to be an already spicy prospect, go fish – it’s set to be nice and sunny, with temperatures predicted in the 28 degrees Celsius realm.