Hamilton scores pole for Australian Grand Prix

Raikkonen sits in second; Vettel in third

MELBOURNE - Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton roared to a record seventh pole at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Saturday, blitzing the field with a searing lap in his Mercedes at Albert Park. The Briton flew around the lakeside circuit in one minute, 21.164 seconds with his final effort, leaving a yawning gap of 0.664 seconds to Ferrari's second fastest Kimi Raikkonen. Four-times champion Sebastian Vettel was third fastest for Ferrari but Hamilton was in a class of his own.

"My heart's racing. I wish you could feel it right now," the 33-year-old said on track. "I'm so happy with that lap."

Red Bull's Max Verstappen will line up alongside Vettel in the second row, with his fifth-fastest team mate Daniel Ricciardo set to start in eighth after suffering a three-place grid penalty for an infringement during Friday practice.

Hamilton's brilliance, however, was tempered by a heavy crash for team mate Valtteri Bottas early in the third and final session of qualifying. Within seconds of starting, 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 passed a medical check but it remains unclear how much of his car is salvageable. Renault's Nico Hulkenberg also took a spin into the gravel in Q2 but scraped through to the final session.

McLaren's hopes of returning to the top four with Renault engines appeared ambitious, with twice champion Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne unable to break into the final 10 cars that advanced to 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)

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