MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Lewis Hamilton produced the fastest lap ever at the Australian Grand Prix to take pole position at the Formula One season opener for the sixth consecutive year .
The five-time world champion edged Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas’ leading time with seconds remaining to top qualifying Saturday in 1 minute, 20.486 seconds.
It will be the eighth time in Hamilton’s career that he’ll start in No. 1 position on the grid in Australia matching Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna’s record for most pole positions at one F1 circuit .
“Oh man. I’m shaking it was so close out there,” Hamilton said in a post-session TV interview. “I’m so proud. Valtteri did an exceptional job out there, so close.”
Bottas was second in 1:20.598 and will start alongside Hamilton on the front row of the grid in Sunday’s Grand Prix. Two-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel was third, while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen split the Ferraris by finishing fourth in front of Charles Leclerc.
Hamilton’s 84th career pole position came as a surprise to nobody, particularly after his 11 GP wins in 2018 and complete domination of the end of last season. He led all three practice sessions before topping qualifying, although he said he hadn’t anticipated his gap over the Ferraris to be as wide as seven-tenths of a second.
“I felt good that we had a decent package to deal with, but we were aware we may be slightly behind; that’s what we thought when we saw a summary of testing,” he said. “Valtteri and I have been pushing the car to its absolute limits. This is the first time we’ve unleashed the full potential of the car and I’m so happy to have a car that I can fight with.”
Asked about the record he now shared with Schumacher (Suzuka) and Senna (Imola), Hamilton said, “I didn’t even know. That’s news to me.”
He’ll be focused more on the race, having only been able to convert one of his five most recent pole starts here into a victory — in 2015.
That the Ferraris haven’t yet been able to post faster times than Mercedes isn’t something that bothers Vettel, who has won here the last two years despite finishing behind Hamilton in qualifying.
Asked if Ferrari can make it three in a row in Australia, Vettel said, “Of course, I think we can. We have a good race car. We’re in good form.
“Obviously, Mercedes are clear favorites, but we’re here to race.”
Leclerc had the quickest time in Q1 but slipped back to third in Q2 and then fifth.
Haas teammates Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were sixth and seventh, McLaren recruit Lando Norris was eighth in his first F1 qualifying session, 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen was ninth for Alpha Romeo Racing and Sergio Perez rounded out the top 10 for Racing Point.
Both Renault drivers missed out on the last stage of qualifying entirely with Nico Hulkenberg 11th after the second run and Daniel Ricciardo 12th in his first qualifying session for his new team.
Pierre Gasly ended his first qualifying run for Red Bull in the garage and was among the five drivers who failed to progress out of the first qualifying section.
He was joined by Williams drivers George Russell and Robert Kubica, who slid off the track after puncturing a tire and had the slowest time of all 20 vehicles. Kubica is making a comeback to F1 following injuries sustained in a serious rallying accident before the start of the 2011 season.
The temperature only reached 23 C (73 F) on clear day at Albert Park on Saturday but is forecast to warm up to 26 C (79 F) on race day.
Drivers and teams also remembered former F1 race director Charlie Whiting, who died suddenly in Melbourne from a pulmonary embolism on the eve of the first official practice sessions of the year.
Hamilton had the words “Thank You Charlie” stenciled on the front of the Mercedes racing car and wore a black arm band on his left sleeve during a post-qualifying news conference.
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