“Our job,” Lewis Hamilton said yesterday after taking the 62nd pole position of his career, his sixth in Melbourne’s Albert Park, and his fourth in a row here, “is not to drive these cars where they are comfortable, but to put them right on the edge of the cliff and keep them there.”
As summaries of a racing driver’s job go, it was a pretty decent stab at explaining the thrill that the drivers have been savouring this weekend with the new breed of bigger, faster, grippier cars that usher in a new era of F1 for 2017.
The circus came here posing more questions than answers. Would Ferrari really be as fast as they appeared to be in testing, or had they been playing games? Were Mercedes still top dog? What about Red Bull? The ebb and flow of the three practice sessions did little to help. There were moments when all three big leaguers looked good.
But qualifying… That’s where you really start to get to the truth, that no hiding place where everyone is going flat out, balls to the wall. And now we have some real answers. Where there was eight-tenths between Mercedes and Ferrari here last year, now there was just 0.268s between Hamilton and Vettel.
That’s the sort of narrow margin on which a genuine two-horse title race can be built, and if Red Bull were left to lick their wounds with Max Verstappen an unrepresentative 1.297s off the pace in fifth place and local hero Daniel Ricciardo in the wall after a rare error, they will only improve and claw their way back and make it a three-way battle.
Hamilton led the way in Q1, from Vettel’s team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and Verstappen; Hamilton’s new partner, Valtteri Bottas, was quickest from Hamilton, Raikkonen and Vettel in Q2; then Hamilton was ahead of Vettel and Bottas again after the first runs in Q3, 1m 22.496s to 1m 22.796s and 1m 22.798s. After Ricciardo’s demise, the three were left to duke it out on their final runs.
Bottas lapped in 1m 22.481s to go fastest. Hamilton lapped in 1m 22.188s, to go faster still. Vettel split them, with 1m 22.485s. 0.293s covered all three.
One thing you know: regardless of the individual satisfaction each drew from their best laps, they love these new cars.
“It’s incredible, the best-ever experience here,” Hamilton smiled. “The grip is fantastic, the aero [download] just makes such a drastic difference, and you can really push into the corners and not have the cars skating round on the low-grip tyres from the past.”
Remember what Fernando Alonso said, about them not being cars to be driven as if by children?
“We definitely have a good car, and we are working well as a team,” Vettel said, and he was his old smirking schoolboy self, not the angry, petulant man of 2016. “We had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence was there in the car from the tests, and we showed it today. I wasn’t that happy with my lap, but Lewis did a very good one. I would have loved to challenge him, but I don’t think that pole was out for grasp [sic] today. But I think we can have a good race. People here are fired up, motivated for tomorrow.”
Adding further spice to the mix, the drivers have greater responsibility for their starting techniques too this year. It’s down to them to push hard and get the job done, not their engineers, and it looks like we will have an edgy race between two big teams. It’s been a long time coming.