Hamilton and Button take one-two on the grid for first time in two and a half years, with world champion Vettel only sixth.
McLaren happy at 'fantastic start' with Australian Grand Prix pole
MELBOURNE // It has taken the best part of four months, but, finally, questions have been answered. Like the dark clouds that enveloped the sky on the opening day of the Australian Grand Prix weekend, the smoke and mirrors surrounding the new Formula One season cleared.
The first qualifying session of the year arrived at Albert Park under a brilliant blue firmament and provided the most genuine indicator yet as to what can be expected over the next eight months. And what we learnt is monumental: The 2012 World Championship season is going to be, without any hint of hyperbole, thoroughly fascinating.
Lewis Hamilton beat teammate Jenson Button to pole position to ensure McLaren-Mercedes secured their first front-row lockout since the European Grand Prix of 2009; Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing’s two-time world champion, endured his worst qualifying session since the Italian Grand Prix of 2010; and Romain Grosjean, making his debut in Australia and his return to the sport following two years away, has the ability and the car to see him fighting at the front.
Add inter-team battles throughout the field – none more interesting than that between Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg – and backmarkers HRT being prohibited from competing in the first race due to their glacial speeds, and a year of interest and intriguing racing awaits.
McLaren laid down the marker as the team to beat as Hamilton, one of six world champions competing for this year’s drivers’ title, clocked a fastest lap of one minute 24.922 seconds to claim the 20th pole of his career.
The blistering lap was 0.152s quicker than Button, who joined the Woking-based marque in 2010 after winning the drivers’ championship with Brawn-GP.
“We’ve had a couple of tough years, but just never seemed to give up,” Hamilton said. “It’s an incredible feeling to be back here and to get off to such a good start. I think this is mine and Jenson’s first one-two in qualifying, so it’s fantastic to start the season this way.”
Last season, Vettel dominated so conclusively that the 24 year old closed out his second title with four races remaining.
He will start the race in sixth place, one position behind teammate Mark Webber, after a rare error on his final lap.
“We would have loved to have been closer to the front, but in Q3 I wasn’t happy with my lap,” said Vettel, who finished 0.746s off the pace. “I made a mistake at the beginning and lost some time, so that was down to me. I could have been one or two places higher, but that’s how it goes.”
One qualifying session does not mean the end of Red Bull’s supremacy, but every driver understands the importance of pole. Vettel started on the front row in 18 of the 19 races last season – converting 11 of them into race wins.
“All I know is we have made the race a little bit easier for ourselves compared to the Red Bulls,” Button said. “Last year it was more of a difficult race because they were starting on the front row, but this year it’s the other way around.”
If Button was happy, Grosjean was delighted.
The Frenchman endured an unimpressive first stint in the sport when he was called upon by Renault midway through 2009. His best finish from seven grands prix was 13th but he has looked a force reborn since winning the GP2 title last year.
Lotus, who have paired him with returning 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, are set to reap the rewards of patience as Grosjean powered his car to third.
“I think a few people believed in me the first time and today I’m back, well, almost to the top,” he said. Much was expected of Raikkonen, but the Finn – taking part in his first F1 weekend since the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009 – failed to make the cut for Q2.
For an enigma who seems to revel in speaking as little as possible, there were smirks in the paddock when he blamed his team for a lack of communication. “I slowed down because we were supposed to have time for one more lap and I guess we didn’t. Nobody told me when I slowed down that I had to hurry up,” he said.
Ferrari were another high-profile name that failed to live up to expectations: Fernando Alonso spun out in Q2 and will start from 12th, while teammate Felipe Massa finished 16th.