Lewis Hamilton’s world championship defence was blown apart in Shanghai on Saturday.
Having lost the first two races of the season, the Mercedes man needs to win Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix to get himself into the title picture but he qualified an ominous fourth.
The Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen took the front two spots – and bust a hole in the theory that this weekend would see Mercedes reassert the dominance that has hallmarked their reign of four years.
And here of all places, where they have been on pole for the last six seasons. The race may change the complexion of the analysis, but for now Saturday’s events look like a significant moment in the nature of the championship fight. It is the second race in succession that Ferrari have locked out the front row, with Vettel pipping his team-mate at the last moment.
‘Great qualifying, great car,’ said Vettel to his team over the radio. He added: ‘I was happy with the whole lap. The car was amazing. It kept getting better.’
Hamilton, who trails Vettel by 17 points, struggled all day, including spinning in practice. He aborted his final lap in qualifying, being off the pace, and will start behind his team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
Cut to dejected faces in the Mercedes garage. They have not been used to this kind of reverse.
Daniel Ricciardo just squeezed into the qualifying session after his engine gave up on him in final practice. His Red Bull mechanics worked ferociously hard to replace the broken Renault power unit and he got out on track with three minutes of the first session to run.
It has been an error-strewn start to Red Bull’s season and Ricciardo must have felt extra pain having retired early from the last race in Bahrain, where he suffered an electrical shutdown.
Ricciardo qualified sixth, a place behind team-mate Max Verstappen.
It was another horrible day for McLaren. They were again 13th and 14th quickest – the same as a week ago. Fernando Alonso was 1.3sec off the pace and Stoffel Vandoorne 1.6sec.
One hundred races have passed since McLaren last won, way back in 2012 through Jenson Button. Not only are they not moving forward over one lap but arguably slipping back since the end of last season, when they would occasionally make it into Q3.