Lewis Hamilton lit the blue touch paper on his rivalry with Sebastian Vettel by storming to pole position for the Australian Grand Prix before goading the Ferrari driver by declaring he had wiped the smile off his face.
Hamilton was in a class of one here at Albert Park in Melbourne as he produced yet another one-lap masterclass to fire an all-too familiar warning to his rivals in the very first qualifying session of the year. The defending champion, 33, roared to the top of the time sheets to finish an eye-watering six-tenths of a second ahead of the rest to seal his 73rd career pole and a record seventh here in Australia.
Vettel qualified only third after he was beaten to the front row by his Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen – and Hamilton could not resist a playful jibe against his chief championship protagonist on the eve of their battle for a fifth Formula One world title.
Hamilton was asked to explain a “party mode” radio call from his Mercedes team which was relayed to the British driver in the moments before his super-quick lap. The message appeared to imply that Hamilton could use a legal power boost in the shoot-out for pole.
Hamilton and Vettel posted similar times on their penultimate runs, but the Englishman was well clear of his rival following their respective final timed laps.
“I can assure you we don’t have a ‘party mode’,” Hamilton said. “There was no extra button.”
“What were you doing before then?” asked Vettel, sitting to the right of the Mercedes driver.
Hamilton hit back: “I was waiting to put a good lap in to wipe the smile off your face.”
Vettel did not reply to Hamilton’s initial jibe, before the incident was re-visited.
“He said it so quick the first time I didn’t get it,” Vettel said. “But now I do. What goes around comes around.”
Vettel continued: “If that is what he enjoys, doing well on a Saturday…”. Hamilton interrupted: “It really was a joke, man.” Vettel replied: “I know. He [Hamilton] is free to have a party tonight and hopefully Kimi and I will have a party tomorrow.”
On the evidence of Hamilton’s emphatic qualifying display here, however, it is the Briton who will be celebrating this evening.
The threat of rain could play a part, while it is worth noting that only two of the last eight pole-sitters have won in Melbourne.
Indeed Hamilton has failed to convert four of his six poles at Albert Park to victory.
It was not a perfect session for Hamilton’s Mercedes team however, after Valtteri Bottas crashed into the wall and out of qualifying at the exit of turn two.
Bottas emerged unscathed from the 110mph smash, but the same could not be said of his car. The rear of his Mercedes, which bore the brunt of the high-speed impact, was destroyed with bits of Silver Arrows littering the asphalt. Bottas was taken to the medical centre for a precautionary check-up before he was given the all-clear.
Max Verstappen qualified fourth, while his Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was fifth.
The Australian will drop to eighth following a grid penalty for a red flag infringement during practice on Friday.
Fernando Alonso was more than one second adrift of the Red Bull cars as he failed to make it into the final phase of qualifying despite the ushering in of a supposed new dawn at the British team following their switch from Honda to Renault power.
Alonso will line up in 11th, one place ahead of his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne.