Lewis Hamilton is predicting a tight championship battle, despite clearing the first hurdle to victory at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix by securing a brilliant pole position.
Hamilton will be joined on the front row by Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who at this very early stage of Formula One’s new-look era would appear to be the Briton’s closest rival for a fourth title.
But while Vettel, Ferrari and indeed the sport – which is desperately relying on another constructor to take the challenge to Hamilton’s all-conquering Mercedes team – will be pleased they are in contention, it is the 32-year-old Briton who is revelling in yet another qualifying masterclass.
Hamilton’s latest one-lap triumph marked the 62nd pole of his career, which leaves him only three behind Ayrton Senna and six adrift of Michael Schumacher in the all-time list. There is every chance he could be crowned Formula One’s pole king by the time of July’s British Grand Prix.
But for now Hamilton’s only focus will be negotiating the short drag down to turn one to win in Australia.
He has secured pole here for the past four years, but converted just one to victory. Last season he fell to sixth by turn one after a sluggish start.
“It is close between us all and as you can see it is going to be a tight race this year,” said Hamilton, who finished 0.268 seconds clear of Vettel after setting the fastest lap ever recorded at Melbourne’s Albert Park.
“It definitely did not start out as the best day for me. I had been feeling great all week and it was feeling like a bit of an off-day, but as it got to qualifying it got a lot better. I am going to make sure that I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”
Hamilton has been on it from the get-go this weekend and he looks like a man enjoying his de facto No.1 status at Mercedes following Nico Rosberg’s retirement. The driver who replaced the world champion, Valtteri Bottas, lines up in third.
“Third position is not ideal and I am not happy for the result,” he said. “I didn’t quite get any perfect laps in so I am not that satisfied. What we don’t want is to have another car from another team in between us.” That team, Ferrari, have carried their strong pre-season form to the first race here they are half-a-second closer to Mercedes than they were at this stage in 2016.
“I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs,” Vettel, the four-time champion, said. “But tomorrow we can do something in the race.
“The car feels good, we have improved, and it has been a big winter for us. The team is getting stronger, people are fired up, and we are motivated for tomorrow and the start is the first good opportunity.”
Kimi Raikkonen will lead the supporting cast as he starts from fourth for Ferrari, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen fifth. His team-mate and home favourite Daniel Ricciardo crashed out and is set to start from 10th.
Jolyon Palmer, Britain’s only other representative on the grid following Jenson Button’s retirement, has endured a deeply troubling weekend and posted the slowest time of all 20 runners.
Fernando Alonso put McLaren’s awful pre-season campaign to one side to qualify a mildly encouraging 13th.