Hamilton takes record 7th pole at Australian Grand Prix

Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen of Finland leaves his garage during the practice session at the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Saturday, March 24, 2018. The first race of the 2018 seasons is on Sunday. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton set a blistering time to take pole position at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix for a record seventh time, outpacing his nearest rival by a massive 0.664 seconds

MELBOURNE, Australia — Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton set a blistering time in his final lap of qualifying to take pole position at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Saturday for a record seventh time, outpacing his nearest rival by a sizable 0.664 seconds.

The defending Formula One champion set a time of 1 minute, 21.164 seconds at Albert Park circuit, breaking a tie with Ayrton Senna for most poles at the Australian GP. It's the 73rd pole of Hamilton's career.

"I'm so happy with that lap. It was such a nice lap," Hamilton said. "And, you know, I'm always striving for perfection and that was as close as I could get."

Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen finished second with a lap of 1:21.828, with teammate Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull's Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo rounding out the top five. Ricciardo will start the race in eighth position after a penalty for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday's practice.

The gap between four-time world champion Hamilton and the rest of the field took many drivers by surprise, with Ricciardo likening it to "throwing a pie in everyone's face." Mercedes has been dominant in Formula One in recent years, but both Ferrari and Red Bull made strides last year and are hoping to challenge for the championship this season.

"I think everyone else wants to see them get challenged a bit more," said Ricciardo. "That was a little bit of a punch in the stomach to everyone. I know obviously they're loving it, they're in a good position. But everyone else is hating it."

It wasn't all good news for Mercedes, however, as Hamilton's teammate, Valtteri Bottas, crashed at the start of the final qualifying session and finished in 10th place. He will start in 15th after a grid penalty for needing another gearbox.

Bottas briefly veered off the track going into Turn 2 and then lost his traction, sliding into a wall at high speed. The crash did serious damage to the right side of the car, tearing off both tires and scattering the track with debris. Bottas walked away without any injuries.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the team was lucky the damage wasn't too extensive and that Bottas would be able to compete on Sunday. But the crash was a blow for the Finnish driver, who had finished last season strongly and was looking to push Hamilton at the start of this year.

"This is a moment where you could start to question yourself," Wolff said. "And this in Race 1 is not good for the psychology of the driver, so we're trying to give him all the support we can."

Ferrari looked capable of matching Mercedes' speed early in Saturday's qualifying, as both Raikkonen and Vettel went out fast with their ultra-soft tires.

"It was a real surprise to see how quick the Ferraris were, the speeds they already had on the straights," Hamilton said. "They've obviously made an improvement to their power mode."

And though Hamilton maintained his dominance in qualifying, Vettel believes Ferrari may have the advantage in Sunday's race with Bottas being forced to play catch-up. Vettel also outdueled the pole-sitting Hamilton here a year ago to win the race.

"Obviously, the gap is bigger than we want it to be," Vettel said. "But we've seen many times now — 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 — that usually on Sunday things get a little bit closer.

"He's free to have the party tonight, and hopefully Kimi and myself will have the party tomorrow."

Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean of Haas took sixth and seventh places, respectively, followed by Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz of Renault in eighth and ninth. Magnussen, Grosjean and Hulkenberg will each move up a space on the grid due to Ricciardo's penalty.

Ricciardo believes Mercedes is still beatable, despite the speed Hamilton displayed in qualifying.

"I think Lewis is very good. I don't think he's too good," he said. "The buffer they had was a little bit disheartening, but we've got to try and figure it out."

Wolff, too, is waiting to see whether Hamilton's pole-setting lap was an "outlier" or simply Mercedes getting even faster thanks to off-season engine improvements.

"If you take the majority of timed laps in qualifying, the Ferraris, Red Bulls and Mercedes were always very close to each other," Wolff said. "Within tenths (of a second) on some of the laps."

Both McLaren drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, failed to qualify for the final qualifying session and, following Bottas' grid penalty, will start in 10th and 11th positions, respectively.

It's not the best start for McLaren's new partnership with Renault after ditching the Honda-made engines which the team had been using for the past three years.

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