Before any times could be set in the top-10 shootout Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas suffered a crunching smash at turn two, triggering a red flag just minutes into the session.
The Finn ran wide as he exited the first corner, and as he got on the power he lost the rear of his car, oversteering into the barrier on the outside of turn two and ending his session on the spot.
The first runs of the session resumed, after which Hamilton held a slender 0.03-second advantage over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, but he bettered that time by almost an entire second on his final attempt.
Vettel followed Hamilton over the line, but the German could find only 0.2 seconds of improvement, confirming Mercedes and Hamilton’s continued supremacy into 2018.
“You would think that with the results we’ve had all these years it would be the norm, but it isn’t — it’s still just as intense,” he said.
“I’m so happy with that lap. It was such a nice lap. I’m always striving for perfection, and that was as close as I could get.”
Many feared Mercedes’s famed qualifying engine mode — dubbed ‘party mode’ by Hamilton during the preseason — would put the four-time constructors champion beyond reach, but Lewis denied any trick settings were behind the second-lap gap.
“I’m always in party mode!” he said. “It was just really hooking up the tyres at the right temperature and putting the lap together.”
Suggestions that Ferrari extracted the maximum from its package are backed up by the closeness of teammates Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, with the latter getting a 0.01-second jump on the former for P2 and P3 on the grid.
“I think it was a really decent job, but obviously the lap time difference is still quite big,” said the Finn of the gap to Mercedes.
“We have to be happy where we’re starting, but there’s still an awful lot of work to be done to improve things.”
Vettel said he was hopeful Ferrari’s race pace would help to salvage the weekend despite the one-lap deficit.
“I think we saw yesterday in the long runs that the pace is very close,” he said.
“We have an opportunity at the start, and in the race you never know.”
Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo qualified fourth and fifth, but both will hope that their selection of the harder supersoft tyre for the start of the race will allow them to leapfrog Ferrari at the end of the first stints.
Ricciardo will hope the strategy proves particularly powerful after he was handed a three-place grid penalty for speeding under red flags during Friday practice, dropping him to eighth on Sunday’s grid.
Kevin Magnussen confirmed Haas as the fourth-fastest team at this early stage of the year, leading teammate Romain Grosjean by 0.1 seconds, albeit two seconds off Hamilton’s headline time.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz qualified two-tenths further back in eighth and ninth, ahead of only the crashed-out Bottas.
The three practice sessions suggested the midfield would be extremely tight, and qualifying demonstrated as much, with Renault, McLaren and Force India battling to avoid elimination.
Force India’s Esteban Ocon was the slowest of the session, though the Frenchman alluded to being blocked by Romain Grosjean hampering his fastest lap.
Ocon’s time meant Williams’s Lance Stroll could qualify in P14, with Ocon’s teammate, Sergio Perez, one space and two-tenths of a second ahead.
It was a sobering session for the pink Force India team, which finished an emphatic fourth in the constructors standings last year.
McLaren were eliminated in P11 and P12, with Fernando Alonso leading Stoffel Vandoorne by two-tenths of a second.
Alonso said on Friday that his aim was to reach Q3 in every race this season, but his 1.5-second deficit to the top 10 suggests there is still plenty of work to do for the famous Woking team.
Tellingly McLaren’s cars were the lowest-placed Renault-powered machines on the grid in Melbourne.
Heavy rain earlier in the day meant the track was evolving quickly early in the session, speeding up the more cars embarked on hot laps.
The battle to avoid elimination was always likely to comprise Sauber, but the Swiss team surprised by competing with Toro Rosso and Williams for a spot in Q2.
Lance Stroll was the standout of the backmarker battle, setting a last-gasp lap more than half a second quicker than rookie teammate Sergey Sirotkin to go another round into qualifying.
Sirotkin was off the pace and qualified second last, but he was saved his blushed by Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, who set the slowest time of all after locking up at turn three on his final qualifying lap.
Gasly’s Toro Rosso teammate, New Zealander Brendon Hartley, on the other hand, did well, missing out on Q2 by just three-hundredths of a second and qualifying P16.
The Sauber drivers were sandwiched between the three in P17 and P18. Marcus Ericsson led the way ahead of rookie Charles Leclerc, the Swede bettering the Monegasque by a tenth of a second.
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