The new Formula One era got off to an exhilarating start in Australia with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton snatching pole position away from home favorite Daniel Ricciardo on the final lap of a rain-affected qualifying session at Albert Park.
Mercedes’ place at the front of the grid in Melbourne was expected after they showed throughout testing that they had adapted best to the most sweeping rule changes introduced to the sport in recent memory. But it was the performance of Red Bull, and their new driver Ricciardo, in splitting Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg that was arguably the biggest story.
In the wet conditions, Ricciardo had made the bold move to opt for intermediate tires. And after he edged ahead of Rosberg, it appeared that the decision might pay off in spectacular fashion. Instead Hamilton nailed his last lap to take his 32nd pole, and one of his most arduous, by 0.317 seconds.
"These new cars are a lot harder to drive in the wet and it was the first time for me driving in the wet, so a serious task and challenge today," Hamilton said afterward, according to Sky Sports. "The toughest I've ever had to drive in the wet.”
The man whose title Hamilton is looking to take away this season, Sebastian Vettel, had a much tougher start to 2014. The four-time world champion suffered several problems and will start from 12th position after failing to make it into the top-10 shootout for the first time since the Belgian Grand Prix in 2012. Still, he will be mightily encouraged by the performance of his teammate.
Red Bull endured a disastrous winter, with their lack of track time leaving many to question their ability to compete near the front of the grid at the start of the season. But after a positive practice on Friday, Ricciardo’s performance demonstrated the folly of writing off the team who have dominated Formula One for the past four years.
“The engineer was always on the radio saying the pace was good and that we were P1, P2 P3 and in the battle for the pole position, so it was definitely a really nice first qualifying session with the team,” he explained, according to Formula One’s official website. “I’m happy for us to have a front row start - it wasn’t looking like this a few weeks ago, so I’m pretty pleased right now.”
Another up and coming driver, McLaren rookie Kevin Magnussen also enjoyed a strong qualifying, with the Dane set to start from fourth. Fernando Alonso will be one place further back after the Spaniard comfortably out-qualified his new teammate Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn crashed out at the end of Q2 and will begin from 11th on the grid. The two Toro Rossos of Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniil Kvyat sandwich seventh-placed Nico Hulkenberg in his Force India.
After a hugely encouraging winter, there was disappointment for Williams. Felipe Massa could only manage ninth, while teammate Valtteri Bottas will start from 15th after a five-place grid penalty for a change of his gearbox.
Where to watch: The Formula One Australian Grand Prix will get underway at 2 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.