MELBOURNE – Lewis Hamilton snatched pole position from home favorite Daniel Ricciardo in the dying seconds of a thrilling Australian Grand Prix qualifying session Saturday, as world champion Sebastian Vettel failed to make the top 10.
Australia’s Ricciardo, embarking on his first race with Red Bull, stormed to the top of the field on his last run, before he was trumped by Mercedes’ Hamilton in a flying final lap in treacherous wet conditions.
The 2008 world champion’s German team-mate, Nico Rosberg, placed third, with McLaren rookie Kevin Magnussen fourth and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso fifth in the season’s first qualifying session.
But there was a sensational miss for Vettel, seeking his fifth straight world title and record 10th consecutive race win, who failed even to reach the final qualifying shoot-out and will start from 12th.
Hamilton’s Q3 time of 1min 44.231sec, three-tenths better than Ricciardo, gave him his third Melbourne pole and the 32nd of his career, equalling the total reached by fellow Briton and ex-world champion Nigel Mansell.
“It’s been an interesting weekend and today made it so much more harder for everyone with the conditions,” Hamilton said.
“But I’m really happy with what the team did and these new cars are a lot harder to drive in the wet — it was the first time for me driving in the wet (in the new car) so it was a serious task and challenge today.”
Vettel had been struggling in his Red Bull car, slow to adapt to a raft of technical changes, and he was held up in Q2 after Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen hit a wall and yellow flags ordered drivers to slow down.
It was the first time since Abu Dhabi in 2012 that Vettel has missed Q3, while Hamilton’s pole position ends Red Bull’s run of eight consecutive races after the Belgian Grand Prix in August.
“It was tricky conditions, for some reason we had more problems today than we had yesterday… the speed is there so we’ll see what it (the car) can do tomorrow,” Vettel said.
“It’s a long race, anything can happen we’ve seen this year so far that with these cars anything is possible so especially in the race I think there will be plenty of opportunities, so we’ll see what we get.”
Vettel will be in good company halfway down the grid after former world champions Raikkonen and Jenson Button of McLaren also failed to reach the final qualifying shoot-out.
Raikkonen nosed into a wall and came to a stop, while Button, who had claimed two previous poles in Melbourne, was 11th quickest and just missed out on Q3.
But while Vettel was lamenting his qualifying flop, his new teammate Ricciardo — replacing retired fellow Australian Mark Webber — was beaming after a dream first qualifying drive for Red Bull.
“It was exciting. Definitely the weather added to the mix and the whole session went well,” said Ricciardo.
“It was the first time we’ve all driven these cars on the limit in wet conditions. It was tricky but at the same time it was a lot of fun and really nice for the first qualifying session (for Red Bull).”
Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne impressively placed sixth, with his rookie Russian team-mate Daniil Kvyat eighth. The two were split by Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg.
But Lotus had a nightmare first outing of the season when both their drivers, Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado, went out in Q1.
Rain lashed the circuit 10 minutes into qualifying, sending fans scurrying for their umbrellas and rain jackets.
Hamilton and then Rosberg went quickest in the final seconds before Ricciardo brought a mighty roar from the crowd when he outstripped the Mercedes pair in his Red Bull.
But Hamilton, still on the track for his last flying lap, screeched round to steal pole position back at the death.