The first “knock out” qualifying of the 2012 Formula One season has concluded at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit with a McLaren front row — Lewis Hamilton followed by Jenson Button — for the first time since late ’09, revealing the prospects of an exciting and closely competitive season. With new technical regulations taking away aerodynamic “blown diffusers,” Adrian Newey’s Red Bull boys struggled for pace and could manage only 5th and 6th on the grid. Meanwhile, Roman Grosejan in the Lotus nipped Michael Schumacher’s quick Mercedes W03 for third.
“I’ve never known F1 to be as open as this,” Button said. “Never. The last five or six years I’ve raced, you would have the McLarens or the Ferraris or, one year, the Brawn, then the Red Bull in 2010 and 2011, but no, I’ve never known it like it is this time.”
This article titled “Lewis Hamilton beats Jenson Button to pole at Australian Grand Prix” was written by Paul Weaver in Melbourne, for guardian.co.uk on Saturday 17th March 2012 04.21 America/New_York
McLaren produced their first one-two lockout since the European Grand Prix of 2009 with Lewis Hamilton winning his 20th pole, just 0.152 seconds ahead of his team-mate Jenson Button in Melbourne.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be back here [on pole] and to get off to such a good start,” Hamilton said. “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.”
After all the smoke and mirrors of testing and practice, perhaps even more surprising than McLaren’s success was a second row made up of Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher in fourth. Grosjean’s performance was even more remarkable as his more fancied team-mate, the former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, failed to make it to Q2 after running wide at T12.
Whether this all spells the end of Red Bull’s hegemony remains to be seen but they looked off the pace, with Sebastian Vettel, the champion for the past two years, back in sixth, one place behind Mark Webber.
“We would have loved to have been closer to the front, but in Q3 I wasn’t happy with my lap,” Vettel said. “I made a mistake at the beginning and lost some time, so that was down to me. We are not starting at the front, but we are not starting at the back either, so it’s far from disastrous.”
There was no doubting the biggest disappointment of the day. Neither Ferrari driver, Fernando Alonso nor Felipe Massa, reached the top-10 shootout. They both struggled for grip, with Alonso spinning off on T1 and finishing 12th while Massa was 16th.
“What is obvious is that we’re not quick enough, not competitive enough to fight for the top places at the moment, which is something we knew after winter testing,” Alonso admitted. “We have to be more united than ever. We worked 24 hours a day before this race, now we have to work 25. It’s the only way to improve the car and win races soon. This is now the target.
Already sensing the likely backlash in Italy, the team principal, Stefano Domenicali, said: “I understand at the moment our fans are disappointed. But I would urge them to be cautious before making any definitive judgement, as if everything was already over.
“The season is going to be very long, as tomorrow’s race will be long and hard. Given our grid positions the realistic aim is for us to get both cars into the points. As usual, we will do our utmost.”
In a very encouraging start for Williams, Pastor Maldonado finished eighth, ahead of Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and local boy Daniel Ricciardo in his Toro Rosso.
At the back of the grid it looked a little like 2011, with Caterham once again looking the strongest of the bottom three. They finished ahead of Marussia but the HRTs failed to make the 107% cut-off time and will not compete on Sunday.
But it was the McLaren team that was the toast of Melbourne in qualifying. And Hamilton’s broad smile was in such contrast to his expression much of the time last year, his most difficult in Formula One.
Button, who won here in 2009 and 2010, said: “We knew we had to have a good winter, which is something we haven’t had for a couple of years. The team have done a very good job. But I was surprised by the gap back to the Red Bulls and the other cars.”
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