Hamilton gains early edge on defending champ Raikkonen

Updated: March 15, 2008, 8:47 AM ET
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Lewis Hamilton got an early psychological edge over Kimi Raikkonen by winning the pole position Saturday for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix while the world champion will start near the back of the grid.

McLaren's Hamilton had the fastest times in the second and third runs of the three-phase qualifying session ahead of Sunday's race around the 3.295-mile Albert Park circuit.

He recorded a 1 minute, 25.187 run in the second phase and 1:26.714 in the third to earn the No. 1 spot on the grid for the seventh time in 18 GP races.

"Being in pole is a great feeling, but there's always improvements you can make," Hamilton said.

"I couldn't have wished for a better start to the season," Hamilton added. "Everything just came together when it mattered. Really, to start the season, we couldn't be in a better position."

Raikkonen's season could hardly have started worse, as he is relegated to 15th place on the grid in the race he won last season.

BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica challenged for the pole, but a slight oversteer onto the grass on Turn 12 of his last run cost him fractions of a second and he finished in 1:26.869 to get the No. 2 position -- his first start on the front row.

"Today we took the risk, pushing really hard. I went off on turn 12, which cost me a pole, but tomorrow is another day," Kubica said.

Hamilton's McLaren teammate Heikki Kovalainen will start at No. 3, beside Raikkonen's Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa.

"Really, to start the season, we couldn't be in a better position," Hamilton said.

After finishing third in his F1 debut here last year, Hamilton led the championship for most of the season until Raikkonen overtook him in the last race at Brazil and won the title by a point.

Hamilton was second in the championship and his then-teammate Fernando Alonso was third, although McLaren was kicked out of the constructors' championship due to a spy scandal in which its chief designer was found in possession of Ferrari data.

That gave Ferrari the driver and constructor titles and, following results of winter testing, few were predicting anything different this season.

But Raikkonen -- who won the last Australian GP in his first race for Ferrari -- had his hopes for a repeat victory all but ended Saturday.

His Ferrari coasted to a halt in the approach to pit lane with a fuel pressure problem on his first qualifying run, and had to be pushed back to the garage by the crew. That assistance meant he was not allowed to continue for the remaining phases.

Raikkonen had the fastest time in Friday's practice despite being unhappy with the car set-up.

Nick Heidfeld will start at No. 5 in the other BMW Sauber, on the same line as Toyota's Jarno Trulli.

Williams' Nico Rosberg and Red Bull's David Coulthard fill out the top 8. Toyota's Timo Glock was ninth in qualifying but was penalized 10 places on the grid -- five for changing a gear box between practice and qualifying and five for interference during qualifying.

Two-time world drivers champion Fernando Alonso, back at Renault after a season at McLaren, failed to reach the third stage of qualifying and will start from 11th, between Honda teammates Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button.

It was a disappointing day for Renault, with Nelson Piquet Jr. -- son of three-time world champion Nelson Piquet -- failing to even reach the second phase of qualifying.

Australia's Mark Webber, who had been fifth, second and sixth quickest in the first three practice sessions, spun his Red Bull into the gravel at Turn 6 in the second run, bringing out the red flag.

Webber will start at 14th.

Adrian Sutil spun out on turn 12 in the first run and was among the six drivers who did not reach the second round.

His Force India teammate Giancarlo Fisichella, the 2005 Australian GP champion, also failed to advance along with four-time Champ Car series champion Sebastien Bourdais in the Toro Rosso, Super Aguri pair Nakajima Sato and Piquet.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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