MELBOURNE, March 16 (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton was “shocked” with the pace of Mercedes after notching a record-extending eighth pole position at the Australian Grand Prix ahead of team mate Valtteri Bottas as they thrashed their Formula One rivals in qualifying on Saturday.
The Formula One champion produced a record one minute 20.486 second lap at Albert Park to edge his Finnish team mate by a 0.112 seconds while leaving Ferrari and the chasing pack for dead.
Hamilton’s lap was more than seven-tenths of a second quicker than chief rival Sebastian Vettel, a year after the Briton left a similar gap to Ferrari when taking pole at the season-opener.
The buzz in the leadup had all been around Ferrari’s speed at winter testing and Hamilton, himself, had thought his team behind the curve coming into Melbourne.
But the 34-year-old and his team mate Bottas delivered a stinging reality check to the Scuderia.
“I really wasn’t expecting to see the performance difference,” said Hamilton. “It is a real shock.
“We were wary we were behind ... Honestly. But from then until now, we’ve understood the car more. We’ve made some really big step forwards with set-up.”
Hamilton complained of a front brake problem in the final session of qualifying and took a heavy skid over a kerb to be pipped by Bottas’s first lap.
But Hamilton recovered brilliantly to deny Bottas his maiden pole at a track the Finn has never had much love for.
“Like Lewis, I’m a little bit blown away by the performance we had today,” said Bottas, who struggled through a winless 2018 as Hamilton swept to his fifth drivers’ championship.
“I don’t think anyone could have imagined we would be in this position after the testing we had but everyone’s been working so hard.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was also delighted.
“I must say I am really overwhelmed,” the Austrian said.
“A really unbelievable feeling. Now we need to stay with both feet on the ground.”
Although having taken pole in the previous five races at Albert Park, Hamilton was upset by winner Vettel in the last two editions despite boasting far superior pace.
The canny German snuck in front of Hamilton by virtue of a lucky safety car deployment last year and also nosed in front of the Briton when exiting pit lane in 2017.
Wolff said Mercedes could not afford to be complacent.
“The long runs were good but we still need to keep it together,” he said. “There’s a long race ahead, 58 laps, reliability woes are always above us.
“There’s always a risk. You need to get off the line as well. so let’s not be too happy today. It’s great, we can really be happy with qualifying but the points are tomorrow.” (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)