MELBOURNE, Australia: Formula One’s new qualifying system faces an immediate revision after a woeful debut at the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday that failed to deliver the promised shake-up of the established order and was panned by drivers and abandoned by fans who walked out on the anti-climactic event.
Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position with a time of 1 minute, 23.837 at the Albert Park circuit, three-tenths of a second faster than Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, with third and fourth place filled by the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
The new format of rolling eliminations every 90 seconds produced plenty of action, and some confusion, in the first qualifying session, but in the third segment, which decided the top end of the grid for Sunday’s race, most drivers elected not to go out on the track and instead saved their tires for the race.
With three minutes remaining on the clock, the leading drivers were out of their cars and fans were streaming out of the grandstands.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, a key player on the F1 strategy group that voted in favor of the new qualifying format despite warnings of such a possible anti-climactic finish, admitted it needed immediate review.
”The new qualifying format was pretty rubbish,” Wolff said. ”Everyone is trying to do their best to improve the show, but when you find out you have not improved the show but made it worse, then you need to sit down and say what can be done, can you come back, and that discussion is going to take place.
”The solution is not good and that is why we have to come back and do it again.”
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner backed that call for a revision, which may take place before the next race in Bahrain.
”First of all, we should apologize,” Horner said. ”The intentions were well-meant but we have got it wrong. We need to address it immediately. What we saw today wasn’t good for Formula One.”
Hamilton was enthusiastic about the smooth performance of his car, saying he was able to post some ”sexy laps” that made him ”feel like James Brown,” but he also slammed the new format.
”To improve, you have to make mistakes, you can’t just improve all the time,” Hamilton said. ”This is perhaps a step in the wrong direction, but I wouldn’t say go back to the old way because we have had it for years. Let’s try and take a step back and figure out another route that is even more exciting.”
Toro Rosso lived up to expectations of a strong start to the season and outperformed the senior Red Bull team, with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. qualifying fifth and seventh respectively, separated by Williams veteran Felipe Massa.
Local favorite Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull qualified eighth, with the Force India pair of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg completing the top 10.
After a rainy Friday that made meaningful car set-up preparations impossible, Saturday was cool and dry at the Albert Park circuit, and the same conditions were forecast for the race.
Vettel said Mercedes’ continued dominance in qualifying was expected, but believes the Ferraris can match their long-run pace, saying ”tomorrow we expect to be quite a lot closer.”
Manor driver Rio Haryanto had a bad start to his F1 career, being hit with a three-place grid penalty after colliding with the Haas of Romain Grosjean in pitlane as they exited their garages to being the pre-qualifying practice. The collision cost Grosjean about half the session as his car underwent repairs.
Haas outperformed Manor in qualifying, with Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez to fill the second-to-last row of the grid ahead of the Manors at the back.
There were also promising performances by Renault in its first race back as a team owner, with both drivers making into the second qualifying session. McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button also made the second session and will start 12th and 13th, respectively, on Sunday.