MELBOURNE, Australia -- After smashing the Albert Park lap record by 0.6s and beating Ferrari by 0.7s, it was not immediately clear to Mercedes how it had managed to gain such a massive advantage on the eve of the first race of the season.
The team knew it had made progress in the final days of pre-season testing in Barcelona, offering a promising base to build on in the two weeks leading up to Australia, but it didn't expect to be this fast. There was no indication that the solid performance of the Ferrari would waver Down Under, and even if it did, the most positive estimation was that it would level the playing field rather than turning it in Mercedes' favour.
"Coming from Barcelona, we made some really big steps forward with setup and we brought that here and it seems to have worked," Hamilton said after setting his pole position lap. "There was also a little bit of work done after the two weeks, where we analysed everything and made some small corrections. But I really was not expecting to see the performance difference that we have here."
There is definitely a sense of relief within Mercedes. After a difficult start to testing, the W10 appears to be a worthy successor to the five championship-winning cars that preceded it, but questions still remain. Is it just that Ferrari failed to find the the sweetspot from its car in Melbourne or did Mercedes really make a massive gain over the last two weeks? Hamilton even cheekily asked Sebastian Vettel if the Ferrari had been running on fumes in testing to skew expectations in favour ahead of the Italian team ahead of the first race. The answer was no.
"One thing we confirmed about our car today is that she's fast," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said of the W10. "Now it is about taking it from there and understanding why that is.
"I'm not sure whether it us that is the outlier compared to the other teams or whether Ferrari did not quite get it together in a similar way to how we didn't get it together in Barcelona -- because they seem to be closer to the other teams than what they should be."
Some of the concerns from the first week of testing were put to bed on the final day in Barcelona when the car finally started to show potential on low fuel. It was a reassuring sign after an upgrade in the second week of testing saw the majority of the bodywork re-profiled in the pursuit of more downforce. But even after converting that promise into a strong Friday in Australia, there were still no guarantees that the car would show such a clean pair of heels to the rest of the field in qualifying.
"When we came to Australia and hit the road running on Friday, it was difficult to know what to expect -- whether we were quickest or not quickest or whether we would be very close," Wolff said. "We had a great Friday, but didn't trust it completely, and then the car was equally good today.
"It's just a result of all the work that has gone on since we started testing and all the analysis since then that put a car on track that was really fast. But it wasn't the easiest of starts in Barcelona and we can't judge yet whether it's an outlier because Melbourne is different or whether generally we have a car that is as fast as it seemed today."
It's also worth remembering that Hamilton's margin over Ferrari in qualifying at Albert Park last year was also 0.7s. Sure, Mercedes went on to take the title by the end of the year, but it didn't win a grand prix until the fourth race in Azerbaijan. The W10 may have been the car to beat on a single lap of Albert Park, but Mercedes is taking nothing for granted just yet.
"I don't think this is what we can expect [for the rest of the year]," Wolff added. "I believe that the championship will be equally fought over like it was last year. Just because we had a very good Friday and a very good first Saturday in Melbourne, it doesn't mean that this will be a home run for the championship.
"On the contrary in fact, I think, like last year, we will have to stretch ourselves to the maximum and leave no stone unturned, like we did in Barcelona, in order to keep ourselves competitive like we did today."