MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton roared to a record seventh pole at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Saturday, blitzing the field in his Mercedes with a blazing lap at Albert Park.
The Briton flew around the lakeside circuit in a record one minute, 21.164 seconds, with his final effort leaving a yawning gap of 0.664 seconds to Ferrari’s second fastest Kimi Raikkonen.
Sebastian Vettel was third fastest for Ferrari but Hamilton was in a class of his own and the Silver Arrows appear as dominant as ever as they bid to sweep the driver and constructors’ titles for a fifth year running.
“That was intense. My heart’s racing. I wish you could feel it right now,” the 33-year-old Hamilton said after clambering onto his car at the finish and pumping his fists.
“I’m so happy with that lap.”
Hamilton moved past the six poles his idol Ayrton Senna claimed in the Australian race with a furious pace that will leave the Ferrari and Red Bull teams scratching their heads.
“Obviously the gap’s bigger than we want it to be,” a subdued Vettel told reporters, looking ahead to Sunday’s race.
“It depends how we get off the (start) line.”
Red Bull wunderkind Max Verstappen will line up alongside Vettel on the second row, with his fifth-fastest team mate Daniel Ricciardo set to start eighth after the home hope was handed a three-place grid penalty for an infringement during Friday practice.
Still pumped at the post-qualifying news conference, Hamilton made a cheeky dig at fellow four-times champion Vettel when the German asked him what he was up to before Q3.
“I was waiting to put a good lap in and wipe the smile off your face,” Hamilton said with a smirk.
The Briton’s brilliance was not matched by team mate Valtteri Bottas, who crashed early in the final shootout.
The Finn, who had complained of balance problems during Q1, spun out at turn two and smashed hard into a barrier, leaving his wrecked car and debris scattered all over the track.
The red flag was waved as the television broadcast showed Mercedes boss Toto Wolff bowing his head in disappointment back in the team garage.
Bottas, who will start in 10th, passed a medical check but it remains unclear how much of his car is salvageable.
Haas confirmed themselves as the big improvers after positive winter testing, with drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean locking down the third row.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg took a spin into the gravel in Q2 but scraped through to the final session and will start seventh, his team mate Carlos Sainz two places behind.
McLaren’s hopes of a quick return to the top four with their new Renault engines proved overly ambitious, with twice champion Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne shut out of the final session.
Force India, fourth in the constructors’ championship for the last two years, also have work to do after being knocked out during Q2.
The championship’s debutant drivers had an underwhelming session, with Sauber’s Charles Leclerc and Williams’ driver Sergey Sirotkin eliminated early.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by John O'Brien