Lewis Hamilton will start Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix from pole position after topping the timesheets in a frantic qualifying session that saw the new format debut to mixed responses.
Hamilton posted a fastest lap of 1:23.837 to finish three-tenths of a second clear of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg as the German marque locked out the front row of the grid for the first race of the year.
Hamilton became just the third driver in the history of the sport to rack up 50 pole positions, joining Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher in the half-century club.
However, the biggest talking point coming out of the session was the failure of the new qualifying format to get more cars on track as hoped, with pole being decided with four minutes remaining in the session.
With the key to getting through Q1 being about posting an early lap time, a number of drivers queued up at the end of the pit lane before the start of Q1 fitted with the super-soft tire. The benefits of the new format immediately became clear as drivers pushed hard to find track position, knowing that after seven minutes the eliminations would begin.
The new format soon began to catch out teams that mis-timed their laps, as both Haas drivers were knocked out in Q1. Esteban Gutierrez did not manage to improve his lap time before the 90-second time limit expired, leaving him P20 on the grid behind teammate Romain Grosjean.
Daniil Kvyat was another early casualty, being stuck in the pits and being knocked out in P18, and was joined in the dropzone by Sauber drivers Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson, the latter being eliminated after a last-ditch improvement by Jolyon Palmer.
Valtteri Bottas proved to be the biggest-name drop-out in Q2 as he failed to improve on a late lap, leaving him 11th on the grid. Both Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were sat in the pits when the clock counted down to knock them out in P9 and P10 respectively.
McLaren failed to reach Q3 as had been hoped heading in to the weekend, with Fernando Alonso being eliminated after a quick lap from Carlos Sainz Jr. dropped him into the red zone. The Spaniard qualified 13th ahead of Jenson Button, while Palmer and Renault teammate Kevin Magnussen finished 14th and 15th.
When Q3 came about, the plan of getting more cars on track by introducing the eliminations backfired as all teams except Mercedes and Ferrari were set to be limited to just one run due to their tire count.
The first laps in Q3 defined positions fifth to eighth on the grid, with Max Verstappen being the lead driver after a very strong team display from Toro Rosso that saw Sainz finished seventh. Felipe Massa split the two Toro Rossos in sixth, while Daniel Ricciardo finished eighth for Red Bull.
Ferrari then informed drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen that it would not be trying another run, leaving only Hamilton and Rosberg out on track with five minutes to go.
Mercedes sent their drivers out immediately, with Rosberg having the first attempt at toppling Hamilton from provisional pole following the Briton’s earlier lap. However, he fell 0.064 seconds short, which combined with Hamilton finding another two-tenths of a second settled the battle for pole with plenty of time to spare in Q3.
As a result, instead of having a breathless fight for pole when the checkered flag fell, the drivers were already out of their cars and being weighed as part of the FIA post-race checks, offering an anti-climax for the fans who had ventured to Melbourne for the race.
Having failed to get more cars on track or shake up the grid – the two supposed benefits of the new format – questions are unquestionably set to be asked about whether it has a future even after just one race.
Regardless, tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix will seek to remedy the disappointment of Saturday as F1 cars go wheel-to-wheel for the first time since the end of November.
The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN from 12am ET on Sunday.