sport

Hamilton on pole in Melbourne

Lewis Hamilton will start the Australian GP on pole after snatching P1 from Daniel Ricciardo - but there was misery for Sebastian Vettel.

In a riveting session run under dark clouds that only served to light up the start of the 2014 campaign in earnest, Red Bull new boy Ricciardo was the star of the show as he comprehensively eclipsed world champion Sebastian Vettel to give Hamilton and the Mercedes the most unexpected of frights.

Only a last-gasp effort from Hamilton, running on the wet tyres and crossing the line to start his all-important and ultimately-decisive flying lap just twenty seconds before the chequered flag was unfurled, was sufficient to deny the Australian youngster a dream debut.

Hamilton's relatively-subdued reaction told a telling tale, with Mercedes' expected domination failing to materialise and Red Bull immediately consigning their winter misery to a distant memory. You can never keep a good team down but the speed at which Red Bull have recovered has been breathtaking.

Nevertheless, Mercedes' current advantage looks to be significant, with Hamilton three-tenths clear in the final reckoning, and the W05's speed potential restricted by damp conditions that saw the field running a mixture of wet and inter tyres in the final shoot-out.

"These new cars are a lot harder to drive in the wet and it was the first time for me driving in the wet, so a serious task and challenge today," reflected a relieved Hamilton.

The 2008 world champion's Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg will start third, with the German seemingly caught out by the changing conditions and warning that "we have a good race car and tomorrow will be a completely different story."

Hampered by the yellow flags triggered by Kimi Raikkonen's crash at the conclusion of Q2, the four-times champion suffered the rare indignity - and one not endured since Belgium 2012 - of failing to make it through Q3, although it would be a disservice to the very impressive Daniel Ricciardo to suggest that his intra-team qualifying victory was anything but meritorious.

The Aussie has been the faster Red Bull driver throughout the weekend, outpacing his illustrious team-mate in every timed session so far.

As for Raikkonen, his anticipated duel with Fernando Alonso has been put on hold while the Finn battles - hitherto vainly - to master the F14 T. The 2007 World Champion has struggled all winter with his new car's extreme torque delivery and his self-induced crash into the wall made it abundantly clear that those struggles are yet to be conquered.

Alonso will start fifth, just behind Kevin Magnussen, who enjoyed a successful debut of his own for McLaren. Not since Hamilton in 2007 has a rookie driver qualified as high up on the grid, but there was no such celebration on the other side of the team's garage after Jenson Button was caught out by the Raikkonen yellow flags.

The surprise of the day, though, was the performance of the two Toro Rossos as both Jean-Eric Vergne and rookie Daniil Kvyat ran strongly to reach the top ten.

Conversely, the Williamses disappointed. Felipe Massa will line-up a disappointing ninth and Valtteri Bottas 14th after suffering a five-place grid demotion for an emergency gearbox change.

And spare a thought for Lotus. Barely four months ago, the team were celebrating finishing fourth in the Constructors' Championship. Since then, they have lost their star driver, their team principal and, judging by the evidence of this weekend in which they have scarcely managed a solitary timed lap, the 2014 plot.

To describe the E22 as a handful would be to extend the definition of an understatement with the two Lotus cars spending as much time in the gravel as they did on the road during a gut-wrenching Q3 session. Suffice to say, Pastor Maldonado, who will start rock bottom of the grid alongside a fuming Romain Grosjean, may well be having second thoughts about the wisdom of his decision to leave Williams.