The first qualifying session of the 2017 Formula One season was an exciting one in which Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas. Heading into the session the relative raw pace of the teams was unclear and excitement was growing that Scuderia Ferrari or even Red Bull Racing could challenge Mercedes AMG Petronas for front-row grid slots and the Tifosi appear to have shortened the gap to the Silver Arrows.
An interesting FP3
Sebastian Vettel had caused a stir in the third and final free practice session on Saturday morning as he bolted on a set of ultra-soft tyres and posted a new Melbourne lap record to give the Tifosi hope that the team’s impressive Winter form would be carried into the season. The session was curtailed by Williams Martini Racing’s Canadian Lance Stroll as he clipped the wall with his right rear at turn 10. The impact caused him to stop on-track and the red flags followed shortly after. After further investigation it emerged that his gearbox was damaged and the subsequent replacement resulted in a five-place grid penalty.
As the green light signalled the start of the season’s first qualifying session, the McLaren-Honda pairing of Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso took to the track first. The drop in temperature prior to qualifying led to an initial lack of grip that was demonstrated by minor moments for Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas on their first hot laps. First blood in the battle between Bottas and his team-mate Lewis Hamilton went to the Finn as he posted a time a couple of hundredths quicker than the Briton although Hamilton went quicker on his second run and ended Q1 at the top of the timesheet.
Stoffel Vandoorne was called in by his team as his car suffered a fuel flow issue resulting in a lack of power compounding an already difficult start to the year for the Woking-based squad. He managed to make it out again after a quick turnaround by the team however he only had one lap in which to squeeze through and it proved beyond him. Max Verstappen suffered a massive lock-up, however he still managed to post a competitive lap time on his ultra-softs even with a large flat spot on his left-front tyre.
Pascal Wehrlein’s replacement for Melbourne Antonio Giovanazzi was pushed out of the Q2 places by more experienced team-mate Marcus Ericsson at the eleventh hour as the Swede managed to just about avoid the embarrassment of being out-qualified by his inexperienced rival. Lance Stroll’s misery was worsened as he could only manage a time good enough for 19th, finishing ahead of the Renault of Jolyon Palmer on a terrible day for the Briton. The gap between Palmer and team-mate Nico Hulkenberg in fifth place was quite simply huge as the two were separated by no less than 3.2 seconds. Kevin Magnussen brought about another shock as he dropped out whilst team-mate Romain Grosjean eased through.
Jolyon Palmer was visibly annoyed in his post-qualifying interview with Sky Sports: “The car was awful…We are a disaster. We are a second off what I did in my second lap in FP1 which is pretty terrible” . His scathing review will keep the PR team at Renault busy and he will hope for a miracle tomorrow.
Ominous-looking clouds began to fill the sky above Albert Park as Q2 got underway. Bottas went slightly quicker than Hamilton as he did at the beginning of Q1 as the Finn showed positive signs that he was adapting to the Mercedes as the weekend progressed.
Fernando Alonso came over the radio to complain of a loss of power from the Honda Power Unit after coming off a kerb at turn 14 and duly took to the pit lane in the hope that his team could rectify the issue. Alas the Spaniard was not able to post a better time and he dropped out in Q2.
Lewis Hamilton opted to not emerge from his garage and for a while there was confusion as to whether he was on used boots but it transpired that this was due to a rogue barcode on the Pirellis. Esteban Ocon’s attempts to creep into the top ten in his pink Sahara Force India were met with disappointment and his team-mate Sergio Perez fared little better as both Force Indias dropped out in the second part of qualifying.
Drops of rain began to fall at the start of the third part of qualifying although the teams were not forced to stick on the intermediate tyres. On the first runs, Lewis Hamilton topped the time sheets by three tenths of a second from Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas in second and third respectively.
In a nightmare moment for homegrown hero Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian put his car into the barriers and the stricken Red Bull caused the red flags to come out and the session was paused. The moment looked odd as Ricciardo did not dip a wheel on to the grass but that will matter little to the Honey Badger who apologised over team radio. Team Principal Christian Horner alluded to the fact that Ricciardo was pushing a little too hard at turn 14 before he found himself in a spin.
“OK, I’m alright. Sorry guys,” Daniel Ricciardo after putting his Red Bull in the barriers at turn 14.
As the session restarted the top four were Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas and Raikkonen and it looked difficult for teenage sensation Max Verstappen to upset the leading quartet. In terms of those vying for pole position, Valtteri Bottas got proceedings underway in the second runs. As it played out, Hamilton went quicker than Bottas and it fell to four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel to put the Cat amongst the Pigeons. The German put his Prancing Horse into second as Ferrari’s return to the front row was sealed.
So Lewis Hamilton begins his world championship tilt in earnest and team-mate Bottas put in a solid performance in his first outing in a Silver Arrow. Ferrari fans will be more than happy with second and fourth and they can take heart that Vettel was only three tenths shy of Hamilton’s time.