Game on for Melbourne Grand Prix

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in action. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in action. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Australian Daniel Ricciardo eclipsed his world champion teammate Sebastian Vettel in a wet and windy qualifying session at Albert Park on Saturday, but could not quite make it a dream debut for his Red Bull Racing career and will start from the second spot on the grid for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix.

Mercedes-Benz's former world champion Lewis Hamilton posted a fractionally faster time in the dying seconds of the final third qualifying session to snare pole position, the 33rd time he has achieved such a milestone in his career. The Briton had consistently been fast in the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, and he and his Mercedes-Benz teammate Nico Rosberg were strongly fancied to make it a clean sweep in qualifying.

But Ricciardo made a dramatic intervention in the closing stages of an hour- long session made unpredictable by the changeable conditions, which saw drivers second guessing the weather and switching tyre combinations.

Ricciardo, who graduated to the Red Bull team this year after serving his formula one apprenticeship in the energy drink giant's Toro Rosso junior squad, looked on course to land a pole position in his first start for the world championship, with the winning team having gone to the top of the list in the final minute of the session.

But Hamilton had the final run and managed to pull out a fractionally faster lap, his 1.44.231 seconds just 0.3 seconds faster than Ricciardo's 1.44.548.

It was good enough for the Australian to split the two Silver Arrows racers, and will see him start 11 places higher on the grid than world champion Vettel, who sensationally failed to make the final top 10 run-off and will start from 13th position in the race.

There was also a tremendous debut from Danish youngster Kevin Magnussen, who, like Ricciardo, outshone his far better credentialled teammate Jenson Button.

Magnussen, driving in his first F1 race, was fourth-fastest in his McLaren, while Button, like Vettel, failed to make the final phase of qualifying. His time of 1.44.595 was quick enough to see off the challenge of another former world champion, Fernando Alonso, in the quickest Ferrari, while the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne was sixth-fastest, good enough for the third row of a grid that will have a rather unusual look about it given the big-name absences.

Ricciardo said the wet conditions probably helped him get as close to the Mercedes duo as he did.

''I have exceeded my expectations. If it was a dry qualifying, we were expecting Lewis and Nico to take the front,'' he said. ''I think their pace in the dry was pretty impressive.

''There was not too much calculating going on in my head; it was just drive and adapt to the conditions.''

Hamilton described the weekend so far - the first with new cars and new regulations - as ''interesting'', with the variable weather conditions adding another layer of complexity.

''These new cars are a lot harder to drive in the wet. It was a serious task today,'' he said.

Rosberg added: ''I don't think we did much wrong - all in all it was a good qualifying session. I am pleased with third, I know we have a good race car.

''It will be a completely different story [in the race].''

Few fans would have bet money on Vettel being the ''slowest'' of the Red Bull/Toro Rosso quartet in qualifying, but that is how it turned out as the Toro Rosso team's Russian rookie Daniil Kvyat qualified in eighth position.

This story Game on for Melbourne Grand Prix first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.