Lewis Hamilton will start the season-opening Australian GP on pole position after narrowly out-pacing Sebastian Vettel in qualifying.
But there was relief for the field with Ferrari within touching distance of Mercedes and Vettel less than three tenths behind the pole-sitter.
“It’s going to be a tight race,” admitted a relieved Hamilton.
“The team is getting stronger and the people are fired up,” said Vettel. “We are improving.”
Vettel’s front-row start will be Ferrari’s first since Singapore in 2015 while Hamilton’s pole is the 62nd of his career and his sixth at Albert Park.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was third quickest, a tad behind Vettel on both of their Q3 runs, with Kimi Raikkonen fourth in the second Ferrari.
But on a deeply disappointing afternoon for Red Bull, home favourite Daniel Ricciardo spun out during Q3 and will start outside of the top 10 if, as expected, a new gearbox is required due to the crash damage.
The second Red Bull of Max Verstappen was distant fifth as both Mercedes and Ferrari delivered emphatic vindication of pre-season expectations that they are a cut above at the front.
Romain Grosjean excelled as he took an unexpected sixth for Haas, just ahead of Williams’ Felipe Massa. The two Toro Rossos of Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat rounded out the top 10 with Ricciardo.
Fernando Alonso was 13th for McLaren – a better than feared result for the team but the maximum the 20-time world champions could have achieved according to the Spaniard. “That was everything I could do,” Alonso told the team.
After crashing in final practice, Williams rookie Lance Stroll was condemned to a back-row start alongside Renault’s Jolyon Palmer – another driver paying a steep price for an accident in practice after the Englishman hit the wall on Friday afternoon.
Grid for the Australian Grand Prix:
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:22.188
2. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, 1:22.456
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 1:22.481
4. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 1:23.033
5. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, 1:23.485
6. Romain Grosjean, Haas, 1:24.074
7. Felipe Massa, Williams, 1:24.443
8. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, 1:24.487
9. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, 1:24.512
10. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, No time
11. Sergio Perez, Force India, 1:25.081
12. Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, 1:25.091
13. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, 1:25.425
14. Esteban Ocon, Force India, 1:25.568
15. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, 1:26.465
16. Antonio Giovinazzi, Sauber, 1:26.419
17. Kevin Magnussen, Haas, 1:26.847
18. Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, 1:26.858
19. Lance Stroll, Williams, 1:27.143
20. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, 1:28.244