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McLaren/Mercedes Rules The Front Row At Aussie Grand Prix

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 17 2012

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

McLaren/Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button fired the opening salvos of the 2012 FIA Formula One season Saturday, when the former World Driving Champions swept the front row during qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Hamilton, the 2008 World Champion, was the lone driver to break the 1-minute, 25-second barrier during the 10-minute third qualifying session for the 10 fastest drivers. Hamilton’s top lap of 1-minute, 24.922-seconds put him 0.152-seconds clear of Button. Hamilton posted his first pole in Australia since 2008 while pacing McLaren/Mercedes’ first 1-2 in qualifying since the European Grand Prix in 2009.

Meanwhile, Frenchman Romain Grosjean shocked the paddock by qualifying third for Lotus/Renault, only 0.380-seconds off Hamilton’s pole-winning effort. Grosjean easily stole the spotlight from teammate and former World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, who failed to get out of the first qualifying session in his ballyhooed return to the series.

Seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher qualified a solid fourth for Mercedes, distancing himself from teammate Nico Rosberg, who will start seventh.

Red Bull/Renault Racing’s Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel – the two-time/reigning World Champion – were fifth and sixth, respectively. Racing before his countrymen, Webber edged Vettel by 0.017-seconds. Vettel, 25, is coming off a 2011 season that saw him bag a record 15 poles and 11 victories en route to becoming the youngest driver to score back-to-back F1 titles.

Williams’ Pastor Maldonado will start eighth for Williams/Renault, ahead of Force India/Mercedes’ Nico Hulkenberg and Toro Rosso/Ferrari’s Daniel Ricciardo. The latter opted to not set a time in Q3, saving his tires for what proved to be his first top-10 start in front of his countrymen.

Scuderia Ferrari’s season began with a resounding thud, as teammates Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa did not advance out of the second session. Alonso, a two-time World Champion, exited qualifying in high-flying style when he put two wheels on the grass entering Turn 1 and spun deep into a gravel trap. The incident prompted a red flag, after which Alonso dropped from third to 12th on the provisional grid.

Given that break, Toro Rosso/Ferrari’s Jean-Eric Vergne moved ahead of the Spaniard. Kamui Kobayashi – quickest driver in Q1 – will start 13th in his Sauber/Ferrari, followed by the Williams/Renault of Bruno Senna, Paul di Resta’s Force India/Mercedes and Massa’s Prancing Horse. Sergio Perez, who did not set a time during Q2 because of a gearbox problem, will start 17th in his Sauber/Ferrari.

Raikkonen, who last competed in F1 in 2009 before heading off to the World Rally wars, saw his day end in Q1 when he put two wheels of his Lotus/Renault on the grass through Turn 12, destroying that hot lap. With no time to attempt another clean circuit, the Finn was relegated to 18th.

The 2012 schedule includes the inaugural F1 United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas, a $300-million facility under construction outside Austin, Texas, and set for Nov. 16-18.

SPEED’s live coverage of the Australian Grand Prix in the USA is set for Sunday at 1:30 a.m. (EDT) for diehards, with a replay at 3 p.m. A half-hour preview show will precede the telecast from Australia at 1 a.m. (EDT).

All 20 Formula One races will be broadcast on SPEED or FOX in 2012, featuring the on-air team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett and Will Buxton. SPEED also will include 30-minute, pre- and post-race shows for the four events scheduled to air on FOX _ the Grand Prix of Canada, Grand Prix of Europe, the British Grand Prix and the German Grand Prix.

Australian Grand Prix starting grid, with driver, country, chassis/engine and time:

1. Lewis Hamilton, Great Britain, McLaren/Mercedes, 1-minute, 24.922-seconds

2. Jenson Button Great Britain. McLaren/Mercedes, 1m, 25.074s

3. Romain Grosjean France, Lotus/Renault, 1m, 25.302s

4. Michael Schumacher, Germany Mercedes, 1m 25.336s

5. Mark Webber, Australia, Red Bull/Renault, 1m 25.651s

6. Sebastian Vettel, Germany, Red Bull/Renault, 1m 25.668s

7. Nico Rosberg, Germany, Mercedes, 1m 25.686s

8. Pastor Maldonado, Venezuela, Williams/Renault, 1m 25.908s

9. Nico Hulkenberg, Germany, Force India/Mercedes, 1m 26.451s

10. Daniel Ricciardo, Australia, Toro Rosso/Ferrari, no time Q3

11. Jean-Eric Vergne, France, Toro Rosso/Ferrari, 1m 26.429s

12. Fernando Alonso, Spain, Ferrari, 1m 26.494s

13. Kamui Kobayashi, Japan, Sauber/Ferrari, 1m 26.590s

14. Bruno Senna, Brazil, Williams/Renault, 1m 26.663s

15. Paul di Resta, Great Britain, Force India/Mercedes, 1m 27.086s

16. Felipe Massa, Brazil, Ferrari, 1m 27.497s

17. Sergio Perez, Mexico, Sauber/Ferrari, no time Q2

18. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, Lotus/Renault, 1m 27.758s

19. Heikki Kovalainen, Finland, Caterham/Renault, 1m 28.679s

20. Vitaly Petrov, Russia, Caterham/Renault, 1m 29.018s

21. Timo Glock, Germany, Virgin/Cosworth, 1m 30.923s

22. Charles Pic, France, Virgin/Cosworth, 1m 31.670s

23. Pedro de la Rosa, Spain, HRT/Cosworth, 1m 33.495s

24. Narain Karthikeyan, India, HRT/Cosworth, 1m 33.643s

Times unofficial/107 percent time, 1m 32.214s

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 17 2012
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