By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A perplexed Sebastian Vettel was left scratching his head after the promise of Ferrari’s pre-season performance was shattered by the pace of Mercedes during Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.
Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton claimed a record-extending eighth pole at Albert Park, edging team mate Valtteri Bottas in a Mercedes one-two as the Silver Arrows gave Ferrari a stinging reality check.
Third fastest Vettel was more than seven-tenths of a second slower than Hamilton, a gap similar to last year’s qualifying when the Briton blew former Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen out of the water.
Runnersup to Mercedes in the last two constructors’ championships, Ferrari arrived in Melbourne with confidence for the new season after being slightly faster during winter testing.
But Barcelona must have felt very far away for Vettel, who was at a loss to explain the sudden and glaring gap.
“I think, there is still a bit of margin (to improve) but certainly the gap is there today, and it was a surprise,” the four-times champion told reporters.
“We didn’t expect it coming here but now it is that way.
“Obviously there is a lack somewhere, because we are too slow – but didn’t feel like it.”
German Vettel’s new team mate Charles Leclerc qualified fifth fastest behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen but the highly regarded 21-year-old was harder on himself than the car.
“I’m not happy with myself. I didn’t do the job in Q3, which is a shame,” said the Monegasque, who locked up in turn one of a “messy” second lap.
“I’ve been struggling quite a lot last year on this track so I’m pretty sure things will get better but I also need to work on my side to put the things together when I have to.
“It’s a shame. I think top three was definitely there, top two not. But we will work to get better.”
While Hamilton claimed pole for a sixth time in succession at Albert Park, Vettel won the last two races in Australia despite conceding plenty of pace to Mercedes’ cars.
Fortune and a safety car deployment helped him pip Hamilton last year and a well-timed pit-stop sealed victory over the Briton in 2017.
Despite the qualifying setback, Vettel said he felt Ferrari had a “good race car” and could still take maximum points on Sunday.
“Obviously Mercedes are the clear favourites after the result today and the pace they have shown so far. But we are here to race,” he said.
“This track is very specific, so (I’m) not worried too much, but for sure it’s not great.
“I would have loved for it to be the other way round.”
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)