Crowds on hand for Saturday's qualifying session on March 15 at the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne cheered in the final moments that saw home-boy Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull nearly walk away with his first pole position. As it was, Red Bull's new driver finished second in time to Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes in Q3, but not without more drama in qualifying that also involved the Australian's team-mate, four-time World Champion, Sebastian Vettel.
Holding pole for merely a moment before Hamilton's time blipped it away, Ricciardo -- who was the first driver of the new, turbo-era 2014 season to complete a timed lap in Friday's practice -- surprised fans with a drive on intermediate tires in the wet that NBCSN's TV commentators David Hobbs and Steve Matchett called "committed." The Australian laid down a time of 1m 44.595s, besting Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg's Q3 time of 1m 44.762s. Hamilton then beat Ricciardo's time with a final 1m 44.231s qualifying lap, leaving a Mercedes-Red Bull-Mercedes top three to start Sunday's race.
Saturday marks Britain's Lewis Hamilton's 32nd career pole position, tying him now historically with Nigel Mansell.
When asked in the post-qualifying press conference about tying Mansell's record, Hamilton reflected: "Yeah, absolutely. Another Brit, one of the greatest British drivers we had and to have achieved so much. I’ve been racing since my eighth year so, to be in Formula One has always been my dream but to get to as many poles as him is…yeah, incredible achievement and I owe that to all the great people I’ve worked with through my career at McLaren-Mercedes and now Mercedes and the team, and my family and the good people I have around me. I won’t be able to put in those laps without those people helping me. It was a team effort."
Red Bull -- whose experiences with the new turbo V-6 and Renault power unit have, so far, destabilized the dominance the team has enjoyed over the last four years -- had mixed results on Saturday, making Ricciardo's achievement all the more noteworthy. Four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel finished Q2 in 13th place, failing to allow him the chance to better his time in Q3. This was the first time since the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix that Vettel has not made it to the top 10 of the starting grid, according to the BBC. Vettel will, however, start at 12th on the grid on Sunday due to Valterri Bottas of Williams receiving a grid penalty for a gearbox change.
According to Formula 1, Ricciardo had this to say about his first front-row position: "Yeah, it was exciting. Definitely the weather added to the mix and the whole session went well. Not everyone was out with options at the beginning but Q1 looked like it was going OK for us. And then when the rain fell, as Lewis said, it’s the first time we’ve all driven these cars on the limit in wet conditions. It was tricky but at the same time, of course, a lot of fun. It was nice to be always up there. The engineer was on the radio saying ‘pace is good, P1, P2, P3’ it was always in that battle for the pole position. So definitely a really nice qualifying session with the team."
When asked, Ricciardo commented about the turn of luck for his team-mate: "I don’t know yet what his issues were. I think it was… I saw it was about two seconds or so off my pace at the time. We’ll have to see what went wrong with Seb and his side of the garage. But for now, happy for me to at least be up here and just for the team to have a front-row start, I think it wasn’t looking like this a few weeks ago, so pretty pleased right now."
Vettel himself remarked about where he finished Saturday, according to Red Bull: "I think we have made a big step forward with the car, but of course I’m not happy that we didn’t make it to Q3. I think the car is quick, but we struggled this afternoon with drivability which, in these conditions, made it even worse. The car seems good and Daniel did a very good job to be on the front row, so congratulations to him. It’s going to be a long race tomorrow and reliability will be the most important thing to make it to the flag, but I think there will be lots of opportunities for us."
More surprises for the 2014 season thus far -- just one qualifying session in -- include the success of young talent in the series. Kevin Magnussen, a 21-year-old Formula 1 rookie this year, made an impressive showing for McLaren in Saturday's qualifying, coming in with the fourth best time. Another rookie, Toro Rosso's 19-year-old Russian driver, Daniil Kvyat, completed qualifying with the eighth best time of the day.
According to Formula 1, qualifying placements were as follows:
Position, Driver, Team, Time
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1m 44.231s
2. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull-Renault, 1m 44.548s
3. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, 1m 44.595s
4. Kevin Magnussen, McLaren-Mercedes, 1m 45.745s
5. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, 1m 45.819s
6. Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso-Renault, 1m 45.864s
7. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India-Mercedes, 1m 46.030s
8. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso-Renault, 1m 47.360s
9. Felipe Massa, Williams-Mercedes, 1m 48.079s
10. * Valtteri Bottas, Williams-Mercedes, 1m 48.147s
Out after Q2
11. Jenson Button, McLaren-Mercedes, 1m 44.437s
12. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 1m 44.494s
13. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault, 1m 44.668s
14. Adrian Sutil, Sauber-Ferrari, 1m 45.655s
15. Kamui Kobayashi, Caterham-Renault, 1m 45.867s
16. Sergio Perez, Force India-Mercedes, 1m 47.293s
Out after Q3
17. Max Chilton, Marussia-Ferrari, 1m 34.293s
18. Jules Bianchi, Marussia-Ferrari, 1m 34.794s
19.*Esteban Gutierrez, Sauber-Ferrari, 1m 35.117s
20. Marcus Ericsson, Caterham-Renault, 1m 35.157s
21. Romain Grosjean, Lotus-Renault, 1m 36.993s
22. Pastor Maldonado, Lotus-Renault, No time
*Received a 5-spot grid penalty after qualifying due to gearbox changes
The Australian Grand Prix in Albert Park, Melbourne, is the season opener in a series of 19 races that will take Formula 1 teams all around the world. New engines and several other changes in requirements, rules, and regulations are already shaking up what had become almost a predictable championship outcome over the last four years with Red Bull's and Vettel's dominance.
If the new regulations may have been, in part, intended to increase excitement for Formula 1 fans, the crowd's enthusiasm at Saturday's qualifying may show that the strategy has a chance of working.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Connie Ann Kirk, Ph.D. has been credentialed by the FIA to write about Formula 1. With a historic racer from upstate New York, she is working on a book about racers and racing. Check out her blog at Motor Sport Muse.