Lewis Hamilton claims season’s first pole in Australia

Ferrari’s Sebastien Vettel joins Mercedes driver at front of the grid in Melbourne

Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. Photograph: Paul Crock/Afp

Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. Photograph: Paul Crock/Afp

 

Lewis Hamilton delivered an emphatic performance to stave off a resurgent Ferrari and claim pole position for Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Sebastian Vettel, who could very well prove to be Hamilton’s closest challenger this year, will line up alongside the Mercedes driver in a tantalising front row, with Valtteri Bottas — the Finn who has replaced reigning champion Nico Rosberg — in third.

Kimi Raikkonen was a distant fourth, while home favourite Daniel Ricciardo dramatically crashed out of qualifying after he lost control of his Red Bull and smashed into the tyre barrier.

The Formula One rulebook has a new look to it this season in a bid to spice up the show and disturb the established order dominated by Mercedes for the past three seasons.

The cars are faster, wider and appear more aggressive, but while Ferrari, who failed to register a single victory last season, are certainly closer to Mercedes, there is simply no stopping Hamilton when he is in this kind of mood.

The 32-year-old, who is bidding to become the first British driver to win a quartet of titles, was 0.268 seconds faster than Vettel after recording the fastest lap ever seen in these parts. Bottas was marginally slower than the Ferrari man.

It marked Hamilton’s 62nd career pole — three behind Ayrton Senna and six adrift of Michael Schumacher in the all-time list.

The home crowd had hoped Ricciardo would be in the mix, too, but he crashed at turn 14 and failed to post a time in the final phase. It means he starts 10th, with Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen fifth.

McLaren arrived in Australia on the back of an awful winter of testing plagued by a slow and unreliable Honda engine. There were real concerns that the British team would be propping up the grid here, so they will take some encouragement from Fernando Alonso making it out of Q1. He will line up 14th on Sunday.

“The lap was good,” Alonso said. “I cannot do more than this.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, the Belgian who has replaced Jenson Button at McLaren this season, was one second slower than his team-mate in 18th.

Italian youngster Antonio Giovinazzi has been handed his grand prix debut at the 11th hour by Sauber after Pascal Wehrlein withdrew following injuries he sustained at the exhibition Race of Champions event in Miami in January.

Wehrlein was given the all-clear by the medical arm of the sport’s governing body on Thursday, but told his Sauber team he did not feel fit enough to race in this new era of the sport in which the cars are a greater physical challenge.

Given his lack of preparation Giovinazzi delivered a commendable display, narrowly missing out on progression through to the second phase of qualifying. He will start 16th.

Lance Stroll, whose motor racing career has been bankrolled by his fashion billionaire father Lawrence Stroll, is another to make his debut this weekend.

Stroll, 18, who will become the second youngest driver to start a Formula One race tomorrow, crashed in final practice, but, while his Williams team managed to repair his car in time for qualifying, he could manage only 19th, more than two seconds adrift of his team-mate Felipe Massa. He will also be demoted to last after his team were forced to replace his gearbox following his practice crash.

His penalty promotes Jolyon Palmer to last but one. The Briton has endured a troubled weekend — he crashed out of practice yesterday — and posted the slowest time in qualifying, too, an eye-watering 3.3 seconds off his new Renault team-mate Nico Hulkenberg.

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