MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Lewis Hamilton produced the fastest lap ever at the Australian Grand Prix to take pole position at the Formula One season opener for the sixth consecutive year.
The five-time world champion overhauled teammate Valtteri Bottas’ leading time with seconds remaining to top qualifying Saturday in 1 minute, 20.486 seconds.
“Oh man. I’m shaking it was so close out there,” Hamilton said in a post-session TV interview. “I’m so proud. Valtteri did an exceptional job out there, so close.”
Bottas was second in 1:20.598 and will start alongside his Hamilton on the front of the grid in Sunday’s Grand Prix. Two-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel was third and Red Bull’s Max Versteppen split the Ferraris by finishing fourth in front of Charles Leclerc.
Hamilton collected the 84th pole position of his career and his eighth in Australia.
Asked about matching Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna’s record for most pole positions at an F1 circuit, the British driver was slightly taken aback.
“I didn’t even know about that,” Hamilton said. “That’s news to me.”
He’ll be focused more on the race, having only been able to convert one of his five most recent pole starts here into a victory — in 2015.
The Ferraris appeared to be the fastest cars in winter testing, but so far haven’t been able to top the Mercedes in any of the three practice sessions or qualifying in Melbourne.
That doesn’t bother Vettel, who has won here the last two years despite finishing behind Hamilton in qualifying.
Asked if Ferrari can make it three in a row in Australia, Vettel said: “Of course, I think we can. We have a good race car. We’re in good form.”
“Obviously Mercedes are clear favorites, but we’re here to race.”
Leclerc had the quickest time in the first of the three qualifying sections but slipped back to third and then fifth.
Both Renault drivers missed the last stage of qualifying with Nico Hulkenberg 11th after the second run and Daniel Ricciardo 12th in his first qualifying session for his new team.
Pierre Gasly ended his first qualifying run for Red Bull in the garage and was among the five drivers who failed to progress out of the first qualifying section.
He was joined by Williams drivers George Russell and Roberta Kubica, who slid off the track after puncturing a tire and had the slowest time of all 20 vehicles in his comeback to F1 following injuries he sustained in a serious rallying accident before the start of the 2011 season.