McLaren confirmed their status as early-season pacesetters as Lewis Hamilton took his 20th career pole position in Melbourne, just edging out team-mate Jenson Button for top spot for the Australian Grand Prix.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be back here and to get off to such a good start,” said an elated Hamilton. “I think this is mine and Jenson’s first one-two – I believe at least – in qualifying, so it’s fantastic to start the season this way. I’m massively proud of the team, working incredibly hard as every year they do, but just to see that it’s never-give-up and this is the result of that.” Button pushed his team-mate throughout and the margin between the pair at the end was just over a tenth of a second. However, despite missing out on pole, Button admitted he was delighted with the team’s progress in recent months.
“I think we have done a very good job this winter and I think we have proved that today,” he said. “It is only the beginning and obviously the lights haven’t gone out yet (at the start of the race) but this is a great first result for us on a Saturday and yeah, it’s looking like it’s going to be a very exciting season. We were so close through all the qualifying sessions but Lewis had the upper hand. I tried my best but it wasn’t quite enough.”
While McLaren confirmed that the pace they showed in winter testing translated to the real world of racing, Red Bull Racing suffered a comparatively difficult afternoon, with Mark Webber finishing fifth, with defending champion Sebastian Vettel lining up behind him in sixth. “We would have loved to have been closer to the front, but in Q3 I wasn't happy with my lap,” said Vettel. “I made a mistake at the beginning and lost some time, so that was down to me.”
Webber, meanwhile, said his afternoon had been compromised by a KERS malfunction. “I didn't have KERS at the end of the session, which affects your rhythm during qualifying – it's a shame as it's been faultless all winter. I'm pleased with my lap in Q3. We can still get on the podium tomorrow, but we have some fast cars around us, no question about it.”
One of those quick cars was the Lotus of Romain Grosjean, the French ‘rookie’ springing the surprise of the day by qualifying third. “It’s really nice to be back in Formula One and I enjoyed the time,” said Grosjean, who last contested a grand prix in Abu Dhabi in 2009. “Winter testing went pretty well and today I’m very proud to be part of this experience with Lotus. I think a few people believed in me the first time and today I’m back, well, almost to the top, and I’m very proud to be with those guys here and hope we can keep going that way all season long and then it will be a very nice story.”
Grosjean’s team-mate Kimi Raikkonen didn’t have the same good fortune. The Finn made an error in the opening session and will start from a lowly 18th place. “Today didn’t go quite as planned. There’s no issue with the car; I made a mistake and there was a communication issue so the timing wasn’t right to get another lap,” said Raikkonen afterwards. “It cost us a good qualifying position but that’s how it goes sometimes. We should have easily been in Q2. It’s not the best start but we’ll try to put it right in the race. There’s plenty of speed in the car. The steering was fine. It’s not perfect for exactly what I want but it doesn’t affect my driving. For sure we can do better than 18th tomorrow so we’ll have to see what happens.”
It was a good day for Mercedes as well, with Michael Schumacher confirming that the team has advanced over the winter by finishing fourth, while Nico Rosberg will start seventh. “I am certainly happy with our performance, which is a huge step forward, considering where we were in qualifying here last year,” said Schumacher of his 11th place start in 2011. “I’m not dreaming too much about winning this race. Yes, we’re fourth, but we have strong guys in front of us. We’ll hopefully have a chance to jump on the podium, that's not completely unrealistic. To win from where we are... it's too early to talk about that.”
The other big mover of the day was Williams’ Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan is something of a street-circuit specialist with multiple wins in multiple categories at Monaco to his credit and he transferred the skills to the temporary Albert Park in qualifying to earn eighth spot on the grid. Toro Rosso continued to impress as well, with Daniel Ricciardo making it into Q3. Rookie team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne will line up behind him in 11th.