MELBOURNE • With a remarkable record in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, it was perhaps not unexpected that Lewis Hamilton extended his run of success yesterday with another pole in Melbourne.
Yet his run to his sixth consecutive pole in Australia - also a record-extending eighth - and the advantage he held over Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in third, was such a turnaround on pre-season predictions that both he and his German rival were left bewildered.
The British driver, who won his fifth world championship last year, put in a magnificent lap to complete what has thus far been a dominant performance at Albert Park.
His Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas was in second with Red Bull's Max Verstappen in fourth.
"It's a real shocker," said Hamilton. "We kept working away at our pace and balance through the weekend, since Barcelona we made some really big steps forward and we brought that here and it seemed to have worked. I was not expecting to see the performance difference that we have here.
"It's difficult when you have a session like that to grasp exactly what happened. This couldn't be a better way to start the year."
Lewis Hamilton clinched pole position at the Australian Grand Prix from 2014-18, but only once has he gone on to win the race, in 2015.
AUSTRALIAN GP GRID
1 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes
2 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes
3 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari
4 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull
5 Charles Leclerc (Mon) Ferrari
6 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas
7 Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas
8 Lando Norris (Gbr) McLaren
9 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Alfa Romeo
10 Sergio Perez (Mex) Racing Point
12 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Renault
17 Pierre Gasly (Fra) Red Bull
20 Robert Kubica (Pol) Williams
Ferrari seemed to have the advantage during winter testing in Barcelona, perhaps by as much as three-tenths of a second and Hamilton acknowledged on Thursday that he thought they were ahead.
However, when practice began in Australia it quickly became clear that Mercedes had more than narrowed the gap. Hamilton was quickest in both practice sessions on Friday and again yesterday.
Vettel was ultimately a full seven-tenths back on Hamilton, who recorded 1min 20.486sec.
The Ferrari driver admitted he had lacked balance, confidence and trust in his car all weekend, which he clearly enjoyed in spades in Barcelona but was absent on the bumpy surface of Albert Park. He too was shocked at Mercedes' pace.
"Certainly I am surprised, I think everybody is, probably even Mercedes," Vettel said.
"There is some homework for us to do, I still think we have a great car and we should be better than this. But Mercedes are the clear favourite with such a big gap and comfort through all the sessions."
Hamilton complained of a front brake problem in the final session of qualifying and took a heavy skid over a kerb to be pipped by Bottas' first lap. But he recovered brilliantly to deny Bottas his maiden pole.
"Like Lewis, I'm a little bit blown away by the performance we had today," said Bottas, who struggled through a winless 2018.
"I don't think anyone could have imagined we would be in this position after the testing we had but everyone's been working so hard."
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was also delighted.
"I must say I am really overwhelmed," the Austrian said.
"A really unbelievable feeling. But now we need to stay with both feet on the ground. There's a long race ahead, 58 laps, reliability woes are always above us."
Ferrari newcomer Charles Leclerc and Haas' Romain Grosjean make up Row 3 behind Vettel and Verstappen.
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
F1 AUSTRALIAN GP
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