Lewis Hamilton was 'shocked' with the pace of Mercedes after notching a record-extending eighth pole position at the Australian Grand Prix ahead of team mate Valtteri Bottas as they thrashed their Formula One rivals in qualifying on Saturday.
The Formula One champion produced a record one minute 20.486 second lap at Albert Park to edge his Finnish team mate by a 0.112 seconds while leaving Ferrari and the chasing pack for dead.
Hamilton's lap was more than seven-tenths of a second quicker than chief rival Sebastian Vettel, a year after the Briton left a similar gap to Ferrari when taking pole at the season-opener.
The buzz in the leadup had all been around Ferrari's speed at winter testing and Hamilton, himself, had thought his team behind the curve coming into Melbourne.
But the 34-year-old and his team mate Bottas delivered a stinging reality check to the Scuderia.
"I really wasn't expecting to see the performance difference," said Hamilton. "It is a real shock.
"We were wary we were behind ... Honestly. But from then until now, we've understood the car more. We've made some really big step forwards with set-up."
Hamilton complained of a front brake problem in the final session of qualifying and took a heavy skid over a kerb to be pipped by Bottas's first lap.
But Hamilton recovered brilliantly to deny Bottas his maiden pole at a track the Finn has never had much love for.
"Like Lewis, I’m a little bit blown away by the performance we had today," said Bottas, who struggled through a winless 2018 as Hamilton swept to his fifth drivers' championship.
"I don’t think anyone could have imagined we would be in this position after the testing we had but everyone’s been working so hard."
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was also delighted.
"I must say I am really overwhelmed," the Austrian said.
"A really unbelievable feeling. Now we need to stay with both feet on the ground."
Although having taken pole in the previous five races at Albert Park, Hamilton was upset by winner Vettel in the last two editions despite boasting far superior pace.
The canny German snuck in front of Hamilton by virtue of a lucky safety car deployment last year and also nosed in front of the Briton when exiting pit lane in 2017.
Wolff said Mercedes could not afford to be complacent.
"The long runs were good but we still need to keep it together," he said. "There’s a long race ahead, 58 laps, reliability woes are always above us.
"There’s always a risk. You need to get off the line as well. so let’s not be too happy today. It’s great, we can really be happy with qualifying but the points are tomorrow."
Puzzled Vettel says Ferrari should be better
A perplexed Sebastian Vettel was left scratching his head after the promise of Ferrari’s pre-season performance was shattered by the pace of Mercedes during Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.
Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton claimed a record-extending eighth pole at Albert Park, edging team mate Valtteri Bottas in a Mercedes one-two as the Silver Arrows gave Ferrari a stinging reality check.
Third fastest Vettel was more than seven-tenths of a second slower than Hamilton, a gap similar to last year’s qualifying when the Briton blew former Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen out of the water.
Runnersup to Mercedes in the last two constructors’ championships, Ferrari arrived in Melbourne with confidence for the new season after being slightly faster during winter testing.
But Barcelona must have felt very far away for Vettel, who was at a loss to explain the sudden and glaring gap.
“I think, there is still a bit of margin (to improve) but certainly the gap is there today, and it was a surprise,” the four-times champion told reporters.
“We didn’t expect it coming here but now it is that way.
“Obviously there is a lack somewhere, because we are too slow – but didn’t feel like it.”
German Vettel’s new team mate Charles Leclerc qualified fifth fastest behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen but the highly regarded 21-year-old was harder on himself than the car.
“I’m not happy with myself. I didn’t do the job in Q3, which is a shame,” said the Monegasque, who locked up in turn one of a 'messy' second lap.
“I’ve been struggling quite a lot last year on this track so I’m pretty sure things will get better but I also need to work on my side to put the things together when I have to.
“It’s a shame. I think top three was definitely there, top two not. But we will work to get better.”
While Hamilton claimed pole for a sixth time in succession at Albert Park, Vettel won the last two races in Australia despite conceding plenty of pace to Mercedes’ cars.
Fortune and a safety car deployment helped him pip Hamilton last year and a well-timed pit-stop sealed victory over the Briton in 2017.
Despite the qualifying setback, Vettel said he felt Ferrari had a “good race car” and could still take maximum points on Sunday.
“Obviously Mercedes are the clear favourites after the result today and the pace they have shown so far. But we are here to race,” he said.
“This track is very specific, so (I’m) not worried too much, but for sure it’s not great.
“I would have loved for it to be the other way round.”
Debutant Norris thrilled with 'massive' qualifying
McLaren debutant Lando Norris looked a wise, old head on young shoulders as the 19-year-old enjoyed a solid qualifying debut for the success-starved Formula One outfit at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.
Britain's youngest F1 driver claimed eighth on the grid for Sunday's race after thrashing his papaya and blue-coloured car into the third and final qualifying session.
His compatriot Lewis Hamilton took a record-extending eighth pole in Australia, ahead of Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas.
While outshining senior team mate Carlos Sainz, who was knocked out in Q1 and will start from 18th, Norris was also the standout for the championship's fresh faces.
Toro Rosso's London-born Thai rookie Alexander Albon was 13th, while George Russell could manage only 19th for troubled Williams on debut.
Norris was fined 5,000 euros ($5,663) for an unsafe release in the final free practice but otherwise has barely put a foot wrong in his first race weekend.
He said crippling nerves had threatened to contain his joy, however, and he was relieved just to get qualifying done.
"I was so nervous, that almost overrode a lot of the enjoyment," he said.
"The enjoyment comes from once I know I’ve completed a lap I’m happy with and seeing how happy the whole team were.
"That’s what makes me happy, seeing how hard everyone has worked and how it’s all come together for qualifying. It’s good to get it off my chest."
McLaren, the team of the late Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, who also took Hamilton to the first of his five titles in 2008, were sixth in the championship last year.
Their title ambitions have largely disappeared during a lean decade but earning recognition as the 'best of the rest' -- behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull -- would at least be a springboard to greater things.
Lining up behind both of Haas's cars on the grid on Sunday, Norris will have a chance to push McLaren higher in the pecking order.
"I think it’s massive," he said of his big day out.
"To see that it is possible to do it and that we have in some ways moved forward from last year.
"Not as much as we need to. I feel like I really maximized everything, not completely but to an extent.
"We do need to do a lot of work to maintain these Q3s. Today wasn’t a one-off but it’s not going to happen all the time so I need to make sure I treasure this."