Mercedes driver and multiple world champion Lewis Hamilton has insisted that Ferrari are favorites based upon their blistering pace in preseason testing, but others in the garage area still see the silver arrow Mercedes as the team to beat.
Certainly if pole position has a familiar feel about it after qualifying – Hamilton’s AMG Mercedes is P1 with a time of 1:22.188 – the other car on the front row being Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari (1:22.456) suggests that the gap between the top two teams may well have closed, and we may yet have a black prancing stallion gate-crashing the usual one-horse-race.
One thing that was promised before the season was faster times, and we certainly got that. Hamilton’s pole position winning time was a full 1.649 seconds faster than his pole setting time last year.
Of course, that is a long way short of the four to five seconds a lap faster we were told to expect, but it remains to be seen whether they achieve that in race trim tomorrow. One suspects that they may well find that sort of speed, and if they do, we can expect laps of around 84.5 to 85 seconds.
Valtteri Bottas, who was awarded the second Mercedes drive after 2016 champion Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to retire, is third on the grid with a time of 1:22.481.
The Finn’s time was impressive having struggled all weekend prior to the qualifying session, as he tries to get to grips with the new car.
Ricciardo's crash proves costly for teammate Verstappen
Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth (1:23.033) in the second Ferrari, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (1:23.485) rounding out the top five.
It could have been a lot better for Verstappen, were it not for his teammate Daniel Ricciardo spinning off and planting his rear end into the tire-wall right in front of him.
The Dutch teenager was posting faster segment times than Raikkonen’s Ferrari until Ricciardo’s spin brought out the yellow flags, forcing him to abort his lap.
The session was red-flagged for a spell while they cleared Ricciardo’s car from the track, and after it restarted, Verstappen could not find the pace he had on his compromised lap.
Romain Grosjean put in a magnificent effort to put his Haas car on the third row with a time of 1:24.074.
It was a lap that bodes well for the American team for the rest of the season, and they will now have hopes of being the ‘best of the rest’ after the big three teams this season, which would be a fantastic achievement for a team in only their second season of racing in motorsport’s premier event.
Williams’ Felipe Massa (1:24.443), Carlos Sainz (1:24.487) and Daniil Kvyat (1:24.512) in their Toro Rossos and Ricciardo – who didn’t post a time in Q3 due to his crash – round out the remainder of the top 10.
Honda's struggles continue as McLaren still look woefully short of pace
It was another difficult session for McLaren Honda with Fernando Alonso doing well to finish qualifying in 13th, but still a massive 3.237 seconds behind the pole time. Teammate Stoffel Vandoorne couldn’t make it out of Q1.
McLaren had hopes for a better season with the new specifications, but after a disastrous winter testing and struggles in free practices here, it looks set to be another long season for the former championship winning constructor.
The race gets under way at 4.00 pm local time (1.00am ET, 6.00am BST, 5.00am GMT).