Lewis Hamilton appeared to put paid to thoughts of closer qualifying battles by putting his Mercedes on pole by a dominant 0.6 seconds at the Australian Grand Prix.
Though the first laps in Q3 gave him only a 0.03-second advantage, an improvement of almost an entire second on his final lap meant he claimed P1 virtually unopposed in scenes eerily familiar to those of the last four years of Mercedes domination.
“You would think that with the results we’ve had in these years it would be the norm, but it doesn’t; it’s still just as intense,” Hamilton said, reflecting on his 73rd pole position.
It ended weeks of preseason speculation that see-sawed between predicting a close battle and a blow-out, and while Mercedes has earnt commendations for is continued excellence, its rivals are growing frustrated that its efforts to thwart the German marque are falling flat.
“That sucks,” said Daniel Ricciardo, the fifth-fastest driver of the evening. “It’s frustrating because I’m over it.
“I think everyone else wants to see them get challenged a bit more, so that was a little bit of a punch in the stomach to everyone. I know obviously they’re loving it — they’re in a good position — but everyone else is hating it.”
Ricciardo said there was little doubt the Mercedes car was distorting the competition between drivers.
“I think Lewis is very good … but I think that obviously their car and their package is too good, absolutely.
“That’s not to discredit Lewis, but I think even him at 90 per cent with that package they had today he still would’ve got pole.
“To go that much quicker in the end, that was like them basically [flipping off] everyone.”
Kimi Raikkonen, who qualified second, admitted that there was still a way for Ferrari to go before it could challenge Mercedes on single-lap pace.
“I think it was a pretty decent job, but obviously the lap time difference is still pretty big,” he said. “We have to be happy about where we are starting, but there is still an awful lot of work to be done to improve things.”
But Ferrari and Red Bull Racing were both optimistic that Sunday would help close the gap between the frontrunners.
“I think we saw yesterday in the long runs that the pace is very close, so let’s see,” said Sebastian Vettel after qualifying third. “It’s not the easiest place to overtake, but who knows — if we have an opportunity at the start and then in the race you never know.
“We’ve seen many times now — 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 — that usually on Sunday things get a little bit closer. We bet on that.”
Max Verstappen, who qualified fourth, and Ricciardo, who will start from eighth after serving a three-place grid penalty, have opted to start the race on the supersoft tyre rather than the ultrasoft compound used by the rest of the top 10 in the hope that it might give them a firmer base from which to build a strategy on Sunday.
“We feel maybe the one-stop [strategy] could be a stretch with an ultrasoft; that’s why we’re going for the super, to try to make sure we can do a one-stop.
“Even on a quicker tyre on a two-stop in traffic you’re going to still struggle a bit, so hopefully we get a one-stop and the others suffer and have to do two. That will be where we celebrate.”
But fears that Mercedes will clean sweep qualifying or indeed races for the rest of the season may prove unfounded, with Mercedes principal Toto Wolff admitting that there was no difference in engine modes between Hamilton’s first lap, which produced a slender 0.03-second advantage over his rivals, and his second dominating tour.
“There is a ‘party mode’ in the car,” he confirmed, referring to a qualifying-only engine mode that develops more power, “But we switched the party mode on in Q3.
“There was no difference from the first run in Q3 to the second run in Q3.
“The gap was down to Lewis Hamilton putting in a lap with a grip level that he didn’t seem to be able to extract before. Everything was in the sweet sport, I guess. There wasn’t any difference in modes.
Indeed Hamilton confirmed as much in a press conference with Vettel after the session, if only in an effort to stir up his German rival.
“I used the same mode from Q2 to the end of Q3. There was no extra button, there was no extra button that I engaged.
“I was waiting to put a good lap in to wipe the smile off your face!”
Vettel couldn’t resist biting back
“He’s free to have a party tonight and then hopefully Kimi and myself will have a party tomorrow.”