Lewis Hamilton has taken a deeply anticlimactic pole when Formula One’s new qualifying format descended into farce at the Australian Grand Prix.
The progressive elimination structure, implemented to create unpredictability in qualifying, resulted in all drivers returning to their garages with five minutes to spare.
Six of the eight completed just one lap at the start of the segment, with only the Mercedes drivers braving second laps.
Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton battled for pole, but Hamilton held his first-lap advantage, extending the margin from less than a tenth to three tenths of a second.
The clock continued to count down, but the chequered flag waived to a long-empty track.
The Australian crowd piled out of the grandstands before the session finished, their disgust for the changes to what was previously a reliably exciting hour plain for the sport to see.
“It didn’t really work, that qualifying for me,” Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner told the BBC. “We should apologise to the fans here, we’ve not really put on a show at all.
“It didn’t work. I think we should apologise to the fans for not putting on a show.”
Horner recommended changes be made ahead of the next round in Bahrain.
Pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was diplomatic in his analysis of the afternoon’s events.
“We’ve not seen it, so we don’t really know how it worked for the others,” he said. “We said at the beginning that it wasn’t the right way, but we can’t knock it before we try it, so we tried it.”
But his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg cut straight to the chase.
“It’s good that F1 tries, but it’s the wrong way, so we should go back for the fans.”
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel left no-one unsure as to his feelings about the format.
“I don’t see the point why everybody’s surprised now — we said it would happen, and it happened,” he said, recalling the drivers’ long-standing disagreement with the change since it was first raised in February.
“I don’t think we need the criticism now — we had the criticisms already. Surely it’s the wrong way to go. That’s what we said.”
Though the delivery of the result was controversial, the result was nonetheless confirmation that Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have done enough to keep their noses ahead of Ferrari and Rosberg.
The Australian Grand Prix pole was the 50th of Hamilton’s career, 15 behind idol Ayrton Senna and 18 behind record holder Michael Schumacher.
“I’d really like to take my hat off to this team for raising the bar once more in our third year fighting the rest,” he said. “For me it inspires me, it motivates me.
“I enjoyed driving the car today in qualifying. They were some sexy laps — just flowing and with no real mistakes.”
Nico Rosberg, who hoped his string of six pole positions and upturn in form at the end of 2015 might carry him through to a title resurgence this year, put in an error-prone session that resulted in an unflattering gap to his teammate.
“Lewis did a better job,” admitted the German. “I’m not happy with second place, but still a lot of opportunities tomorrow starting from second.”
Sebastian Vettel, the only man likely to be capable of challenging either Mercedes driver this season, qualified in his usual third, ahead of teammate Kimi Räikkönen in fourth, but believed there was more to come from Ferrari on race day.
“I think I’ve said many times that we’ve done a step forward,” he said.
“Tomorrow we should be quite a bit closer. We expected them to be strong in qualifying, which they were.”
The four-time world champion said strategy dictated that he couldn’t complete a second lap, instead conserving what tyres he had left for the race after he used an additional set to guarantee a Q3 berth.
Max Verstappen showed his 2016 Toro Rosso will be a car to contend with for the leading midfield teams, at least for the first half of the season, with an outstanding fifth-fastest time of the session, beating Williams’s Felipe Massa to the best of the rest tag.
Carlos Sainz finished behind the lone Williams, and beat Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo in the process.
Sorting out the middle of the grid proved a straightforward affair, much in the same was Q2 was under the old format.
Both Renault cars were eliminated while on track, with Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer fifteenth and fourteenth fastest.
McLaren’s Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso followed in thirteen and twelve, both while in the garage, before Valtteri Bottas, the only surprise of the segment, bit the bullet in P11.
Force India duo Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Perez were the highest-place drivers eliminated, both from their garages, in tenth and ninth.
The first ever segment of the refreshed qualifying format started explosively, with all cars taking to the track to set a banker time.
All cars made use of the fastest supersoft tyre, with all teams unsure as to how exactly the format would play out, but after three quick runs most drivers returned to the garage believing they had put in as good a lap as they were capable.
Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto from Manor were eliminated first. Esteban Gutierrez was on a quick lap to avoid being the next driver to be eliminated, but he fell seconds short from completing it when the clock expired.
Ahead of the Mexican in P20 Haas teammate Romain Grosjean was sent back to his garage in P19.
Next Daniil Kvyat found himself slowest, at which point it was too late for him to jump into his car and set a time. He was eliminated as he trudged down the pit lane.
Felipe Nasr was caught out part of the way through a hot lap, and Marcus Ericsson failed to improve his time sufficient to avoid elimination.
|5||Max Verstappen||Toro Rosso-Ferrari||1:25.434|
|7||Carlos Sainz||Toro Rosso-Ferrari||1:25.582|
|8||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer||1:25.589|
|9||Sergio Perez||Force India-Mercedes||1:25.753|
|10||Nico Hülkenberg||Force India-Mercedes||1:25.865|
|18||Daniil Kvyat||Red Bull Racing-TAG Heuer||1:28.006|
*Rio Haryanto received a three-place grid penalty for colliding with Romain Grosjean in the pit lane during free practice three and will start from last in Sunday’s race.