The only two firm certainties in life may be death and taxes, but the next-closest thing would be Lewis Hamilton scoring pole position for the Australian Grand Prix.

For the sixth year in a row, Hamilton finished Saturday at Albert Park at the head of the field, celebrating a job well done by his Mercedes Formula 1 team in parc ferme.

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And yet the result that statistically seemed so likely came as one of the biggest early-season shocks in recent years. Not so much the fact that Hamilton was on pole – but just how far ahead of the rest of the field Mercedes had finished.

This was shaping up to be the year that Ferrari finally put an end to Mercedes’ domination of the sport. The signs were encouraging throughout pre-season testing, with paddock consensus being that Ferrari was the team to beat over both one lap and the long runs.

Yet when Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto shook his head upon seeing Hamilton’s Q2 lap time in spite of an on-track mistake and hitting traffic, it was clear that the promise of testing had taken a twist.

Q3 saw Hamilton once again prove why he deserves to be deemed the greatest F1 qualifier of all-time as he overturned a gap of almost half a second to Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to grab pole position. A foot-perfect final lap gave Hamilton his eighth Australian Grand Prix pole, matching Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna’s record for the most poles at a single circuit that they hold at Suzuka and Imola respectively.

Ferrari’s quiet Friday proved to be a sign of things to come as Vettel finished a distant seven-tenths of a second off Hamilton’s lap in third. Teammate Charles Leclerc was almost a second back in fifth. Max Verstappen was able to get Red Bull up into fourth, but none of them could hold a candle to the Mercedes out front.

The result came as much of a surprise to the pole-sitter as it did to anyone. “We were wary we might be slightly behind, that’s what we honestly thought,” Hamilton said. “[The team] showed us a summary of how testing went, and we were behind Ferrari.

“We were closer than we thought we would be from testing, but then all of a sudden they lost some performance and maybe something happened this morning which we were not expecting. It is a real shock.”

Valtteri Bottas – just one-tenth of a second shy of his teammate in Q3 – added: “I’m a little bit blown away by the team performance we had today. Yesterday it was looking good, but it was only practice. Today it was the first sessions of the year that really counted, and I don’t think anyone in the team could imagine we would be in this position after the testing we had.”

Vettel had been rather chipper about Ferrari’s chances leading up to qualifying, making the result something of a blow.

“I’m relatively surprised. I think everybody is, probably even themselves,” Vettel said of Mercedes. “We should do better than this, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow. We have some time to get a proper read on where we are. But certainly Mercedes is the clear favourite.”

Soon after qualifying, social media quickly became awash with cynicism at the result. Game over for 2019 then. Title settled. Mercedes domination once again. Booooring.

So why didn’t we see this coming? Did we take too much from testing? Or was it simply a case of Mercedes finally ditching the sandbags?

Praise must be given to Mercedes for its turnaround since the start of testing. The team made particular strides over the second week of running, getting itself within spitting distance of Ferrari. We’re still yet to see what the team can truly do over the long runs, but the early data from practice on Friday suggested it had a slender edge over its Italian rival.

But it seems to be less a case of Mercedes finally showing its hand and more of Ferrari spilling its chips when it mattered in Melbourne, taking a step back from where it was at the end of pre-season testing.

“The car felt really good at testing, and probably around here so far this weekend, it didn’t feel as good yet,” Vettel explained.

“Yesterday was a difficult day for us, it was tricky. Today felt a bit better, but there’s not an awful lot of time to try different things. Obviously you have to get on with it, and the sessions come fast. Especially in qualifying you can’t really change much. If anything, you get a better understanding of where you’re losing out or where it feels uncomfortable.

“There’s still for us a bit of margin, but certainly the gap is there today, and it was a surprise. We didn’t expect it coming here.”

Vettel said he believed the slow-speed nature of many of the corners at Albert Park was working against Ferrari, feeling confident the team was matching Mercedes for power.

“[There are] 16 corners around here, and I think it’s fairly even on the straights. It was more the medium and lower speed stuff rather than the high-speed stuff, which I think speaks for a strong car in general,” Vettel said.

“I haven’t got the balance yet that maybe I’d like to have, especially in slower speed, not the confidence and trust that around here make a big difference. 

“I think in the race it could be closer but also the long runs that both of them had yesterday looked very strong. Ours looked OK, but not as special as theirs so we will see.

“I think today the car was better and I expect it to be better also tomorrow so we should be a bit closer.”

So perhaps all is not lost in the title fight yet. If Ferrari’s woes are indeed circuit-specific, then today’s result should not set the tone for the year to follow.

A comforting omen should also come from qualifying last year, when Hamilton outqualified Vettel by – what a coincidence – seven-tenths of a second. Although Hamilton should have won the race, only denied when caught out by a Virtual Safety Car period, Vettel remained a threat throughout. And then Ferrari was the team to beat for the next three races.

We hear plenty of chatter through pre-season about how you can’t really be sure about the pecking order until a few races in given the particularities of the first few tracks. So let’s not jump the gun just yet and deem 2019 to be a write-off.

And even if the status quo remains unchanged, we shouldn’t talk down another sensational qualifying display from Hamilton and the Mercedes team as a whole.

84 poles and counting – are you really going to bet against Lewis hitting triple figures before he’s done?

 

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