It wasn’t supposed to be this way – but Lewis Hamilton won’t be complaining.
The young Brit began his second F1 season by putting his McLaren on pole in Melbourne, while main rival and defending champion Kimi Raikkonen starts near the back after mechanical problems.
Robert Kubica for BMW Sauber is a surprise second while McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen starts third and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa fourth.
David Coulthard managed to get his Red Bull into the final qualifying contest and will start 8th, but Jenson Button couldn’t quite join him there and qualified 13th. He gained a place, however, after Toyota’s Timo Glock dropped from 9th to 19th thanks to a double penalty from the stewards for impeding Mark Webber and for replacing his gearbox.
Anthony Davidson will start last, having run two and a quarter seconds slower than Hamilton is his largely untested Super Aguri.
The day’s other stand-out performers were undoubtedly Kubica, who would have snatched pole but for a slight oversteer, and Sebastian Vettel, who took his Toro Rosso into the unfamiliar territory of the final qualifying session and will start 9th.
Home favourite Mark Webber suffered brake problems and qualified 15th, one place ahead of Raikkonen, while double world champion Fernando Alonso could only manage 12th. All gain a place thanks to Glock’s demotion.
Hamilton’s success came despite a crowded track and a problem with both McLaren cars which saw team mechanics work through the night.
He said: “It was a great qualifying session. Really, for the start of the season, it couldn’t be a better position for both of us.
“It was a bit nerve-racking at the beginning and we didn’t really get a great lap – we were held up a bit and it wasn’t really easy to find the gap, it was a lot harder than I have experienced in the past.
“But we managed to find some sort of a gap towards the end and I was able to get a reasonably decent lap – but I still felt that I lost a little bit of time.
“On Friday night we had a couple of problems but the team were ready to do whatever they needed and they pushed very hard to get the car set up properly and be out there.”
Raikkonen’s problems were caused by a fuel pump failure during the first session, which left him coasting to a halt near the pitlane. His team helped him back to the Ferrari garage, and the stewards banned him from further participation because of their assistance.
He reacted philosophically: “It’s definitely not the best way to start the season. Clearly I’m disappointed. Now we must try to do our best to pick up some points tomorrow.”
Coulthard is still getting the measure of his Red Bull and felt his 8th might have been improved on: “We expected to get into the top ten today, but I would have preferred to have felt that I could attack a bit more with the car. If I push then the car’s quite unstable on the bumps.
“All our concentration is on the start line now, as it will be interesting to see what happens without traction control. It was quite tricky out there, especially on the prime tyres. I think there’s going to be some variation during the race when cars run between the two tyre types. ”
After a season with the also-rans, Honda were pleased – and quite surprised – to set the 11th and 13th times. Button said: “The car certainly performed well but unfortunately I lost two-tenths at both turn 9 and the last corner with understeer at the apex which caused me to run wide.
“It’s very frustrating as I was pushing too hard, however the fact that both Rubens and I just missed out on the top ten is certainly encouraging and I’m looking forward to seeing how our performance translates to the race tomorrow.”
Further back in the field Davidson was disappointed by his session, which was obstructed by a spin from Adrian Sutil. He said: “It was a difficult qualifying session for me. With a limited number of laps under my belt going into qualifying it was always going to be hard to put the car on the limit like that and we were still doing set-up all the way through the session itself.
“So it is not the best position to be in, but things will improve and I was up on my last flying lap by about three tenths when the Force India car spun, caused yellow flags and I had to back off. It’s just one of those things, but it’s a disappointing end to the day.”
- Lewis Hamilton, Britain, McLaren-Mercedes, 1 minute, 26.714 seconds.
- Robert Kubica, Poland, BMW-Sauber, 1:26.869.
- Heikki Kovalainen, Finland, McLaren-Mercedes, 1:27.079.
- Felipe Massa, Brazil, Ferrari, 1:27.178.
- Nick Heidfeld, Germany, BMW-Sauber, 1:27. 236.
- Jarno Trulli, Italy, Toyota, 1:28. 527.
- Nico Rosberg, Germany, Williams, 1:28.687.
- David Coulthard, Britain, Red Bull, 1:29.041.
- Sebastian Vettel, Germany, Toro Rosso, did not start final session.
- Rubens Barrichello, Brazil, Honda, 1:26.173.
- Fernando Alonso, Spain, Renault, 1:26.188.
- Jenson Button, Britain, Honda, 1:26.259.
- Kazuki Nakajima, Japan, Williams, 1:26.413.
- Mark Webber, Australia, Red Bull, did not finish second session.
- Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, Ferrari, did not start second session.
- Giancarlo Fisichella, Italy, Force India, 1:27.207.
- Sebastien Bourdais, France, Toro Rosso, 1:27.446.
- Adrian Sutil, Germany, Force India, 1;27.859.
- Timo Glock, Germany, Toyota, set 1:29.593 in final session but demoted from 9th by stewards.
- Takuma Sato, Japan, Super Aguri, 1:28.208.
- Nelson Piquet Jr., Brazil, Renault, 1:28.330.
- Anthony Davidson, Britian, Super Aguri, 1:29.059.