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Lewis takes pole, Seb to start 13th

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel

Melbourne: Lewis Hamilton captured pole position for Mercedes for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in a thrilling finish to a rain-hit qualifying session on Saturday, while Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel failed to make the top 10.

Hamilton saved the best for last with his final lap of a gloomy session after Australian Daniel Ricciardo had stormed to the top of the timesheets only seconds earlier on his first race weekend for champions Red Bull.

Hamilton’s teammate Nico Rosberg will start third on the grid alongside McLaren’s 21-year-old Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen, who underlined his talent with a poised drive in trying conditions.

[According to The Daily Telegraph, Mercedes have said the pair have the green light to push each other hard and fight on track, after Rosberg was left frustrated having to hold station behind the Brit last year in Malaysia.]

The 29-year-old Briton’s time of one minute 44.231 seconds on a greasy Albert Park track was just over three-tenths of a second faster than Ricciardo, who upstaged teammate Vettel to the delight of the home fans. Quadruple champion Vettel, winner of the last nine races of 2013, was only 13th fastest and was frustrated by a crash late in the final session by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen which brought out the yellow flags and forced drivers to ease their pace.

“Today made it so much harder with the conditions, but I’m really happy with the job the team did,” said Hamilton, whose 32nd second pole equalled Nigel Mansell’s British record. “These cars are much harder driving in the wet.”

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso qualified fifth with Jean-Eric Vergne sixth fastest for Toro Rosso.

It was the first time Vettel had failed to make the final round of qualifying since he started 11th on the grid in Belgium in 2012, before battling through the field to finish the race second.

Vettel will move up to 12th, however, with Williams’ Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas due to drop from 10th place after taking a five-place penalty for a gearbox change.

With Red Bull still playing catch-up to Mercedes after an abysmal winter testing plagued by reliability problems with their Renault power unit, Vettel looks set to be beaten for the first time since Hamilton won in Hungary last July. Vettel will be in esteemed company in the middle of the grid, with two other champions — McLaren’s Jenson Button and Raikkonen — also failing to get into the final group of 10.

Briton Button qualified 11th but will start 10th, while Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, was 12th fastest on his first Saturday since returning to Maranello. Russian rookie Daniil Kvyat also enjoyed a positive qualifying debut, despite hitting the wall at the end of the final session, to line up eighth for Toro Rosso.

Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:44.231; 2. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:44.548; 3. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:44.595; 4. Kevin Magnussen (McLaren) 1:45.745; 5. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1:45.819; 6. Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) 1:45.864; 7. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) 1:46.030; 8. Danill Kvyat (Toro Rosso) 1:47.368; 9. Felipe Massa (Williams) 1:48.079; 10. Valtteri Bottas (Williams) 1:48.147; 11. Jenson Button (McLaren) 1:44.437; 12. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) 1:44.494; 13. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 1:44.668; 14. Adrian Sutil (Sauber) 1:45.655; 15. Kamui Kobayashi (Caterham) 1:45.867; 16. Sergio Perez (Force India) 1:47.293; 17. Max Chilton (Marussia) 1:34.293; 18. Jules Bianchi (Marussia) 1:34.794; 19. Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) 1:35.117; 20. Marcus Ericsson (Caterham) 1:35.157; 21. Romain Grosjean (Lotus) 1:36.993; 22. Pastor Maldonado (Lotus) - no time. (Reuters)

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