MELBOURNE • Lewis Hamilton took pole for Mercedes at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix yesterday but Sebastian Vettel raised hopes of a Ferrari renaissance by grabbing a spot on the front row.
Hamilton's flying lap of 1min 22.188sec set a record at Albert Park but was only 0.268sec in front of Vettel, offering the tantalising prospect of a competitive championship after three years of total domination by the Silver Arrows.
Vettel left Hamilton's new team-mate Valtteri Bottas frustrated on the second row, the meat in a Ferrari sandwich next to fourth-fastest Kimi Raikkonen.
On a cloudy day with the merest hint of rain, Hamilton grabbed his 62nd pole in Formula One, holding firm as Vettel and Bottas pushed hard late in the session.
"It has been a fantastic weekend so far," Hamilton told reporters. "I am really proud of my team, the guys have worked so hard to make the car what it is today. Valtteri has done a great job and it is great for Mercedes. It is close between us all and it will be a tight race."
After Hamilton dominated Friday practice, Vettel topped the timesheets in the final session yesterday but rued a mistake in his fastest qualifying lap.
It was still encouraging enough for him to declare that the Scuderia could contend in today's race, having shown impressive pace and reliability during winter testing.
"Tomorrow, I think we can do something in the race," said the four-time world champion. "As I said, the car feels good, we've improved it so the pace feels much better than yesterday when we had some practice."
Red Bull's Max Verstappen qualified fifth but it was a forgettable day for his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, whose hopes of becoming the race's first home winner in 37 years ended early in Q3.
He took a spin at Turn 14, ended up in the gravel and will start 10th on the grid.
"That was a tough one today. I don't crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home," said the Australian.
Qualifying showed that Red Bull are not yet on the same level as pace-setters Mercedes and Ferrari but Verstappen said he was not surprised.
"Basically I saw it coming after winter testing. This is the best we could do," the 19-year-old Dutch driver told Sky Sports television.
"We are still down on power but also, in terms of grip level and things, we are not on the same level compared to Ferrari and Mercedes yet. Our best hope tomorrow is a clean start because we don't have the pace to challenge the Ferraris and Mercedes. I'm realistic."
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX
Race day (Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, noon)