A wet morning for Free Practice 3 turned into a dry and sunny qualifying session. The question weighed like a two-ton heavy thing—who was going to be the fastest team? Had Red Bull leap-frogged Ferrari? Could either give Mercedes a challenge?
The qualifying session started with an automatic 3-place grid penalty for Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo so qualifying was critical if he had any hope of being the first Australian on the podium of the Australian Grand Prix.
Early running on Ultrasoft tire compounds found Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen leading in the first 10 minutes. With lots of traffic on the track, Lewis Hamilton was balked as was Sebastian Vettel. Lewis made a second run with 9 minutes left in the session and did claw his way up to 2nd just behind the flying Finn.
With just five minutes left, Lewis threw down another lap and took top spot by 3/10’s of a second. A great lap from Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson drew him up to 12th and made the Force India’s, as well as Haas team nervous, heading into their last runs. Hass driver Romain Grosjean answered with a run to 6th and his teammate, Kevin Magnussen, managing 8th. Force India narrowly made it in to Q2 which will be a big worry for the team who finished 4th in the constructor’s championship last year. Only Stroll’s Williams squeaked into Q2.
Out in Q1- Hartley, Leclerc, Ericsson, Gasly, Sirotkin
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen came out on his first run on the Supersoft tire compound instead of the Ultrasoft compounds. Perhaps red Bull may be playing the long game and betting on better tire performance and a longer first stint against Mercedes come race day. Max set a 1:22.830 while Raikkonen and Vettel were 4-3 tenths quicker. Hamilton’s first run was a real cracker taking the top spot by nearly half a second over Raikkonen’s Ferrari.
As the final runs in Q2 started, the dark grey clouds returned taking the track-heating sunshine with it. Both Red Bull’s stayed on the Supersoft compound for their final run meaning they would start the race on these compounds.
The Mercedes were nose-to-tail for their final run. Both Haas and both Renault’s made it through to Q3. A late lap from Vettel took top spot by a tenth over Hamilton and could signal that they are here to fight Mercedes.
Tragically both McLaren’s failed to make it through to Q3 and that won’t go over well with Fernando Alonso. The thought of battling Renault was the goal but being beat by both Haas cars has one wondering if the American team may be supplanting Force India as the best of the rest in 2018.
Out in Q2- Vandoorne, Alonso, Stroll, Ocon, Perez
After setting a sub 1:22s lap, could Vettel claim pole? Was it time for Mercedes to use Hamilton’s “Party Mode”? Initial laps on Ultrasofts as the sun started to peak out.
A big crash from Valtteri Bottas in the exit of turn 2 brought out the red flag after hitting the wall and destroying the right side of his car in grand fashion. It wasn’t a good start for Bottas who needs to raise his game but the crash could mean a new gearbox, engine or other issues that may have a knock-on effect.
Mercedes will start on the back foot as far as team points go for Sunday’s race and Lewis will have a lot of weight on his shoulders. Team boss Toto Wolff did not look pleased with the incident. A lot of work for the team to get a car ready for Valtteri on Sunday. It must be said that the marshals did a great job of quickly removing the stricken Mercedes and all the debris to get the session back under way.
With 9:47s left, the cars rolled out for their final runs. Lewis started his run with a run to the top. Vettel was setting purple sectors but missed the top by 3/100’s of a second. Verstappen managed to squeeze between the Ferraris in 3rd. The top three cars (Hamilton, Vettel Verstappen) were separated by 6/100’s of a second.
With 3 minutes left, Haas and the Renault’s went out for their only run in Q3. Lewis went out with 2:30s left followed by the Ferraris. Ferrari haven’t been on pole for the first race of the season since 2007.
Lewis threw down a lap record to take pole position over Raikkonen and Vettel with Verstappen 4th followed by his teammate, Ricciardo in 5th. Both Haas F1 cars finished in 6th and 7th ahead of the Renaults which bodes well for the American team. From Kimi’s perspective, he was looking good in qualifying for all three sessions and will start ahead of Vettel.