Valtteri Bottas has been dealt a further blow following confirmation that he will be forced to serve a grid penalty following his qualifying crash.
Bottas lost control of his Mercedes on the exit of turn two at Melbourne’s Albert Park and suffered significant damage to his car after he smashed into the wall.
The 28-year-old Finn emerged unscathed from the 110mph shunt, but will drop five places on the grid after his Mercedes team revealed he will require a new gearbox.
It means Bottas is due to start a lowly 15th at Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
In contrast, Bottas’ team-mate Lewis Hamilton will line up from pole position after he stormed to the top of the order following his emphatic qualifying lap.
“It is a garage of contrasting emotions today with a really unfortunate end to qualifying for Valtteri,” Toto Wolff, the Mercedes executive director said.
“It was a big hit and the boys will have a long job list to get the car ready to race. It’s now about putting the incident behind him and recovering as strongly as possible.”
Bottas was taken to the medical centre for a precautionary check-up following the high-speed crash before he was swiftly given the all-clear.
The former Williams driver is out of contract with Mercedes at the end of the season, and his crash here is hardly the start he needed in his pursuit of a new deal.
“I went wide in turn one and the kerb was still a bit damp, so I lost the rear of the car and hit the wall outside of turn two,” Bottas explained.
“It’s very unfortunate and I feel sorry for the team because we have a really competitive car. It looked like it was damaged pretty badly, so I really hope we can fix it for the race.
“Overtaking is difficult on this track, but we’ll try everything we can. We have a good car, so I’ll try to fight back.”
Hamilton was in a class of one as he steered his Mercedes to the front slot of the grid with an utterly emphatic display which will send out an all-to-familiar warning to his rivals.
The 33-year-old British driver’s best lap was more than an eye-watering six tenths of a second faster than the rest of the field with Kimi Raikkonen edging out his Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel for second.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified fourth ahead of his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who is due to serve a three-place grid drop following an infringement in practice on Friday.
But it was not a perfect session for Hamilton’s Mercedes team after Valtteri Bottas crashed into the wall and out of qualifying at the exit of turn two.
Bottas emerged unscathed from the 110mph smash, which happened on his very first lap in the battle for pole, but the same could not be said of his car.
The rear of his Mercedes, which bore the brunt of the high-speed impact was destroyed with bits of his car littering the asphalt. Bottas was taken to the medical centre for a precautionary check-up before he was swiftly given the all-clear.
The session was suspended to deal with the swathes of Mercedes debris on the track, but following a 10-minute delay, the top-10 shootout resumed and it was Hamilton who blitzed the pack with a lap he described as close to perfection.
“You would think that with these results we have had it would start to feel like the norm, but it doesn’t,” said an ecstatic Hamilton after securing his seventh pole in Melbourne.
“My heart is racing. I am so happy with that lap. It was such a nice lap. I am always striving for perfection and that was as close as I could get.”
McLaren arrived here in Melbourne on the back foot after a thoroughly underwhelming pre-season campaign which was blighted by reliability issues.
They ran into further trouble here on Friday after their star driver Fernando Alonso and his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne suffered exhaust leaks.
Both men managed to get through qualifying in one piece, but they fell at the second phase with Alonso due to start 11th and Vandoorne 12th.
The McLaren hierarchy had targeted a battle with Red Bull this season following their divorce from Honda engines and switch to Renault power.
But Alonso was more than one second adrift of the Red Bull cars, proving there is plenty of work to be done by the Woking marque. Indeed, Alonso qualified 13th in Melbourne last year, and 12th in 2016.
“That is okay,” said Alonso, when informed of his grid position, but you fancy both the Spaniard and his team will have harboured greater expectations heading into the opening race.
Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean qualified an impressive sixth and seventh for Haas ahead of the Renault duo of Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz.
Lewis Hamilton may go into this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix as the overwhelming favourite to clinch a fifth world title, but away from his battle with Sebastian Vettel lies another thrilling duel with the Red Bull drivers.
The Milton Keynes outfit boasts perhaps the strongest drivers’ line-up on the grid this season in Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.
The charismatic pair have mutual off-the-track respect for each other, but with a more reliable car at their disposal, this could be the year we see fireworks as the pair tussle for the right to be Red Bull’s No1 driver.
While he has still not turned 21, Verstappen is in his fourth season in F1 and continues to emerge as a threat to Hamilton’s dominance, while Ricciardo – who is entering the final year of his contract at Red Bull – has made no secrets of his aspirations to be a world champion one day.
Consistent and aggressive, both drivers have the chance to improve on last season’s finishes in a far more competitive car – with Verstappen primed for a title assault if his car stays reliable.
The Dutchman is fearless and unintimidated – and an exceptional talent who can push it to the limit against all opposition.
Ricciardo, meanwhile, is the best overtaker on the grid but questions remain whether he has the bottle to be a world champion.
Though Ricciardo has outscored Verstappen in both their seasons together, the latter had a superior qualifying record in 2017 – 13-7 – but only finished on the podium four times.
In contrast, the Australian came third or better on nine of the 14 races he completed last season.
Despite retiring from seven of the 20 races due to engine failure, Verstappen – who signed a new contract in October until the end of 2020 – finished ahead of his team-mate every time both cars made the chequered flag.
And although he may reflect on 2017 as a mixed campaign, the 20-year-old showed terrific mental strength to bounce back and claim two victories in Malaysia and Mexico.
Four successive drivers’ championships between 2010 and 2013 may be a distant memory for Red Bull – with Mercedes dominating every year since – but a strong pre-season shows signs of them returning to the top.
A good chassis and a strong Renault-powered engine should put them in a position to challenge Mercedes more than Ferrari this season, but early wins and solid reliability are necessary before any signs of improvement are notably visible.
While Ricciardo heads into his home race in Melbourne hoping to kick-start his season on a positive note – despite receiving a three-place gird penalty for speeding under red flag conditions on Friday – he is facing an uncertain future at Red Bull.
With Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen entering the final year on their respective deals, a driver merry-go-round could take place at the end of the campaign with the Australian a front runner to secure one of the Mercedes or Ferrari seats.
Primed to be a world champion, Ricciardo, now 28, may need to move away from Red Bull to make this dream a reality, especially knowing only one driver can be a world champion from the factory. Special preference is bound to act in Verstappen’s favour if he continues to improve on the heights of the last two campaigns.
No matter how likeable Verstappen and Ricciardo are, or how their friendship is off the track, there’s only one winner at the end of the season.
Hamilton may lift the title for a fifth time in November, but this could be the year we see one of Verstappen and Ricciardo close in as a serious contender for the world championship.