MELBOURNE • Party mode or not, it appears that Lewis Hamilton is spoiling his rivals' fun at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
The reigning champion's devastating pace on his pole lap in Melbourne was akin to Mercedes throwing a "pie in everyone's face", Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo said.
Hamilton himself suggested, jokingly, that taking a record seventh pole at Albert Park yesterday with a record lap of 1min 21.164sec was designed to "wipe the smile" off Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel's face.
The effort was over six-tenths clear of Ferrari's second-placed Kimi Raikkonen. It was also a dramatic improvement from Hamilton's fastest effort in the second session of qualifying, prompting a question on whether his Mercedes W09 had a "party mode" - a different engine mode for Q3.
"I used the same mode from Q2 through to the end of Q3," he told a news conference while sitting next to Vettel. "There was no extra button, no extra mode."
Vettel, third in qualifying and shunted onto the second row for today's race, asked him: "What were you doing before then?"
Hamilton replied: "I was waiting to put a good lap. Wipe the smile off your face."
AUSTRALIAN GP GRID
1 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes 2 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari
3 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari 4 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull
5 Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas 6 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas
7 Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Renault 8 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull
9 Carlos Sainz Jr (Esp) Renault 10 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes
11 Fernando Alonso (Esp) McLaren
13 Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India
Like the pole lap, the quip proved too fast for the German, who was only made aware of it when asked how he would respond today.
"I think what goes around comes around," Vettel said with a smile that appeared a little forced. "If that's what he enjoys, obviously on Saturdays he's doing pretty well."
Hamilton moved to defuse the rising tension by insisting that he was kidding.
"I know but... He's free to have a party tonight and then hopefully Kimi and myself will have a party tomorrow," said Vettel, refusing to rule out the prospect of Ferrari repeating their win from last year, when he won with a superior strategy ahead of pole-sitter Hamilton.
Before today's race, Hamilton had alluded to Mercedes' ability to apply a superior engine mode to gain more speed.
"Our qualifying mode is the most fun," said the Briton, who has failed to convert four of his six poles to victory in Melbourne.
"It should be called 'party mode' because it gives us the most juice and the highest speed."
Prior to his flying lap yesterday, he received a "party mode" radio call from his team. And Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff appeared to confirm the legal power boost.
He (Hamilton) is free to have a party tonight and then hopefully Kimi (Raikkonen) and myself will have a party tomorrow.
SEBASTIAN VETTEL, after Lewis Hamilton told him: "I was waiting to put a good lap. Wipe the smile off your face."
"There is a party mode in the car, we switched the party mode on in Q3," the Austrian said. "There was no difference from the first run in Q3 to the second run in Q3, he just said that he had a great lap, pulled it all together, carried more speed through the apexes.
"The gap was down to Lewis Hamilton putting in a lap with the grip level that he didn't seem to be able to extract before."
But Mercedes' cheer at their seemingly huge advantage in pace was tempered by Valtteri Bottas' crash into a barrier at the start of Q3. The Finn lost control at Turn Two. He will not start from any closer than 15th on the grid after needing a gearbox change.
Ricciardo, who finished almost a second off Hamilton in fifth and will start the race in eighth due to a grid penalty, is hopeful that tyre strategy will boost his chances of a podium finish.
The Red Bulls opted to use the supersoft tyres in Q2, meaning they will be able to start the race on the harder rubber, in contrast to the other teams who all used the softest, ultrasoft rubber in the second session. They will be able to stay out longer in their opening race stint, giving them options today.
"We felt that maybe a one-stop could be a stretch with the ultrasoft," Ricciardo said. "Hopefully we get a one-stop and the others suffer and have to do a two, and that would be where we celebrate."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN
F1 AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX
Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, noon