Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain reacts after setting pole position in qualifying. (Reuters)
Lewis Hamilton took pole position with the fastest lap ever at Albert Park and will start the season-opening Australian Grand Prix at the front of the grid.
The times kept improving during the three practice sessions and the Mercedes driver's last flying lap in qualifying Saturday was 1 minute, 22.188 seconds. That lowered the mark Sebastian Vettel set in his Ferrari in the last of the three practice sessions, which was already lower than the previous quickest time in Melbourne he set here in taking pole position for the 2011 GP.
Vettel overhauled the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas for second spot in 1:22.456, but three-time world champion Hamilton had done enough to claim pole in Australia for the sixth time. Kimi Raikkonen was fourth in the second Ferrari.
The new technical and tire regulations were expected to make the F1 cars faster this season. So far, so good. And while it's still Mercedes on pole, Vettel and Raikkonen showed that Ferrari should be more competitive this season.
''It's been a fantastic weekend so far,'' Hamilton said. ''I'm just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge - such a massive challenge for everyone.
''The (crew) have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today - it's great for us, for Mercedes, and I'm looking forward to the race.''
Vettel, a four-time world champion, said Hamilton's qualifying lap was only just out of his reach, but he was looking forward to racing the new, faster cars in GP conditions.
''People are fired up,'' Vettel said. ''We're motivated for tomorrow.
''We have a good car and we're working well as a team. Nice to see that things are working. We had a mixed day yesterday, but confidence in the car was there from testing.''
Hamilton started from pole position here last year but finished second to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in the Grand Prix. Rosberg also edged Hamilton for the world drivers' championship and then retired, creating room for Bottas to move across from Williams.
Local hope Daniel Ricciardo slid his Red Bull rear first into the gravel and stopped at turn 14, and walked off the track as the red flag came out - causing a suspension of the last qualifying run.
Ricciardo slipped to last among the 10 fastest qualifiers, but his Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen held on for fifth. Roman Grosjean was sixth for Haas, Felipe Massa was seventh for Williams and Toro Rosso drivers Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat were eighth and ninth.
''I'm fine physically but emotionally it's tough,'' said Ricciardo, who was third in the driver standings last year.
Hamilton posted the fastest times in the first two practice sessions but was almost a half-second behind Vettel in the Saturday practice on the 5.303-kilometer (3.295-mile) circuit.
Michael Schumacher holds the mark for the fastest racing lap at Albert Park, recording 1:24.125 on the way to victory in 2004. Based on performances this weekend, that record could fall.
The last practice session ended under a red flag after 18-year-old Canadian Lance Stroll went too wide and clipped the wall at turn 10, damaging his right rear wheel. He will start at the back of the grid in his first F1 Grand Prix.
Sauber's substitute driver Antonio Giovinazzi, who was put in the car when Pascal Wehrlein withdrew earlier Saturday because of a fitness issue, had the slowest lap in the last practice on his F1 debut but finished up in 16th spot on the grid.
Actress Nicole Kidman was at the Albert Park circuit and paid a visit to the Ferrari team between practice and qualifying.
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