MELBOURNE // Sebastian Vettel, the reigning world champion, yesterday showed ferocious pace to secure pole position at the Australian Grand Prix for the second successive year and then had the audacity to reveal he clocked his fastest lap without even using the kinetic energy recovery system (Kers).
Vettel navigated his Red Bull Racing RB7 around the Albert Park circuit in an incredible 1min 23.529secs and while Lewis Hamilton was understandably "thrilled" to place second quickest, the fact he lagged a massive 0.77 seconds behind the world champion may have dampened McLaren-Mercedes' spirits.
Vettel's domination was strengthened further by his teammate Mark Webber's third-placed finish, almost a full second off the pace.
"Staggering," was how Hamilton described Vettel's lap-time, while the McLaren driver's stablemate Jenson Button, who finished fourth, described Red Bull as being "in a different league".
Vettel's and Webber's lead last night certainly did not include the energy saving Kers, meaning both drivers potentially have another half a second in their tanks, another factor that left Hamilton bewildered.
"So that is a 1.3 second [gap]," the Englishman said. "That's not normal."
And while nobody in the Red Bull team would say why the device had not been deployed, Christian Horner, the team principal, said it was "a strategically elected team decision". He also refused to say whether they would use it in today's race.
Yet while opposition engineers last night hurried to close the gap before today's season-opening grand prix, Vettel, who finished on pole last year only to later retire from the race, sounded a note of caution.
"Although the gap now might appear to be big, it's a long season and a lot of things can happen," the 23-year-old said. "It's a good position to be in, and I'm very happy with that, but we need to keep our feet on the ground.
"If you look at the points, we still have zero like everyone else, so we need to see what happens in the race."
History would certainly dictate that a Vettel victory is far from guaranteed. In 1997, Jacques Villeneuve started on pole at the season-opening grand prix at Albert Park after clocking the fastest lap on the Saturday by a giant 1.8-second margin, yet did not win the race.
In front of a swollen home crowd here yesterday, Australian Webber was disappointed by his performance. Last year, He was a mere few hundredths of a second behind Vettel; this year he was 0.86 seconds.
"I'm not overly rapt to be third on the grid," said Webber, who has never finished higher than fifth in Melbourne.
"I'm a little bit mystified by the gap if I'm honest. I wasn't in the fight for pole, clearly, so we need to address that and take it into the race. It's frustrating [because] I would have liked to have done better, but I tried my best and I'll have to go through it and have a look at where I can improve."
While Vettel's pace is astonishing, McLaren undoubtedly deserve praise for squeezing their way on to the front line of the grid and managing to become the metallic meat in a Red Bull sandwich.
Only last week, the team were desperately struggling to produce a competitive car and eventually opted for a radical, but risky, overhaul.
"It was a very brave and tough decision for us to pull back from what we had been developing over the winter test and decide 'OK, we are going to come back in another direction'," Hamilton said.
"Since I have been here, we have never done that before. The guys worked harder than they have ever pushed before to get the components here and the car feels a huge improvement; a great foundation for us to really push on."