(Photo credit: Juozas Kaziukenas)
Things aren’t as close as we thought
One highlight of qualifying was that with three minutes to go in Q3, the top three drivers (representing three different teams and three different engines) were separated by just 0.061 seconds. There has been a lot of hype about the pecking order this year and whilst people all seemed to agree Mercedes was ahead, no-one really knew how much by. For a few glorious moments it looked like we would head into a 2010-style season, where performance was so close it would change round-by-round, favouring different teams as the season progressed.
Then Hamilton went crazy - his 1:21.164 smashed the lap record around Albert Park and was comfortably quicker than all other challengers (although Valtteri Bottas might have got closer if he hadn’t already crashed). Behind them, the two Ferrari’s were just 0.01s apart, with 0.051s separating second placed Kimi Raikkonen from fourth placed Max Verstappen. Those hoping for a surprise midfield winner might be disappointed this year as the best-of-the-rest team Haas (who will start fifth and sixth tomorrow after Ricciardo’s penalty) were over two seconds slower.
Testing didn’t tell the whole story
McLaren had a lot of troubles during testing and came away once again having completed the least amount of laps. Toro Rosso used their new Honda engines to good effect and were expected to pull a surprise or two in the season opener. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out that way for them, with both cars knocked out in Q1 (Hartley 16th, Gasly 20th). McLaren, meanwhile, had their fortunes transformed and will line up 11th (Alonso) and 12th (Vandoorne). Star driver Fernando Alonso believes a points finish is possible on Sunday and admitted he was eyeing a place in the top five. The Spaniard will be one to watch as he attempts to fight through the field!
First blood to Hamilton, Verstappen and Raikkonen
But each team battle tells a different story. At Mercedes, Hamilton stormed to pole, with a lap time ominous to those wanting to challenge him. Valtteri Bottas could have joined his teammate on the front row, but a crash on his first Q3 lap means he will line up 15th after a gearbox change. With overtaking becoming increasingly tricky in these downforce-heavy cars, it will be interesting to see if the Finnish driver can make his way through the pack.
At Red Bull, Verstappen continued his string of impressive qualifying performances by outperforming teammate and home favourite Daniel Ricciardo by over 0.2s. The Australian racer will take a controversial three-place penalty to the grid and start in eighth, leaving him with some overtaking to do. Both Red Bulls will start on the supersoft tyre instead of the ultrasoft tyres, hinting at a longer first stint, so expect them to play a strategic game in the opening few laps. Could we see a surprise from them?
At Ferrari, Raikkonen pulled out a great lap to put himself on the front row, pipping four-time champion and 2017 Australia winner Sebastian Vettel by 1/100th of a second. This is impressive from a driver who rarely had results go his way in 2017 and hopefully shows that Ferrari have two strong drivers ready to fight Mercedes and Red Bull for the titles. As for tomorrow, Ferrari seem to be in the strongest position to play strategy, perhaps even using Red Bull’s supersoft opening stint to their advantage. The racer starting in second place has won the last two races at Albert Park, and Kimi Raikkonen’s last win came at this track five years ago (from seventh on the grid), so the potential is definitely there!
Whatever happens tomorrow, it looks set to be an intriguing race, with plenty of teams and drivers wanting to prove something, and early bragging rights up for grabs.
Who will take the chequered flag tomorrow? Let us know in the comments below.