SHANGHAI — Faced with a spirited challenge at the start of the Formula One season from a resurgent Ferrari, Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton showed Saturday that he's still the driver to beat.
Hamilton captured his sixth pole position at the Chinese Grand Prix, edging Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari by less than two-tenths of a second.
For the second race in a row, Hamilton also did it in record time. His lap of 1 minute, 31.678 seconds broke the 13-year-old circuit mark held by Michael Schumacher by more than half a second. He also posted the fastest-ever lap at the Australian Grand Prix during qualifying last month.
Still, Hamilton doesn't necessarily think he's the odds-on favourite in Sunday's race, given the pace shown by his rivals in the scarlet cars.
"The Ferraris have looked so fast," Hamilton said. "It's super exciting for me because we're really fighting these guys, having to raise the bar every time we go out."
Hamilton also started from pole position at the Australian GP, but Vettel beat him on race day when Hamilton pitted early and got stuck in traffic and couldn't catch up.
It was Vettel's first victory in more than a year and established Ferrari as a true competitor to the long-dominant silver cars. Vettel is now keen to make it two-for-two to start the season.
"Obviously it's a lot of fun when you fight for poles and wins," Vettel said. "We didn't really have much expectations (in Shanghai) because it's a completely different track, but we know on the other hand that our car's working well, so just need to keep it up."
Hamilton's Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, qualified in third, just 0.001 of a second behind Vettel. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen was fourth.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is expecting quite a battle for top spot on the podium on Sunday.
"You can start to see a certain pattern in pure pace," Wolff said. "The pattern is that it's a close fight between Ferrari and Mercedes at the very front and there seems to be quite a gap behind."
The wider and heavier cars designed in the off-season under new F1 rules were intended to lead to faster times, but the difference in qualifying times compared to last year was striking nonetheless.
The fastest lap set by pole sitter Nico Rosberg last year, 1:35.402, was topped by every driver in the first session of qualifying this year, except two.
Schumacher's old lap record was also beaten by the top four finishers on Saturday.
Under the new F1 regulations, this year's cars have wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce. The heavier cars are more difficult to drive, putting more emphasis on the drivers' skills and conditioning.
But they're also significantly faster — as Saturday's times demonstrated — and are expected to allow more overtaking and create more exciting races.
The gulf between the top two teams and the rest of the field, however, remained significant.
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo rebounded from a disastrous race in Australia to qualify in fifth place. His time of 1:33.033, though, was nearly a full second slower than Raikkonen.
"It's not an overnight thing," Ricciardo said of closing the gap with Ferrari and Mercedes. "I think we'll need some good updates to really get on the pace of them. They're super quick at the moment."
Williams' Felipe Massa finished sixth, followed by Renault's Niko Hulkenberg, Force India's Sergio Perez, Toro Rosso's Daniil Kyvat and Williams' Lance Stroll.
Red Bull's Max Verstappen was surprisingly knocked out of the first session of qualifying after encountering a power problem.
His final flying lap was spoiled when Sauber's Antonio Giovinazzi lost control and crashed spectacularly into the wall, littering the track with debris and bringing a premature end to the session.
Verstappen will now start in 17th place — a major setback for the young Dutch driver, who was coming off a fifth-placed finish in the Australian GP.
Haas' Romain Grosjean and Renault's Jolyon Palmer were also trying to avoid elimination with a flying lap and were penalized five spots on the grid for ignoring the yellow flags after the crash.
Grosjean and Palmer will now start on the back row in 19th and 20th positions, respectively.
Teams had very little time to test their cars after poor visibility from rain, fog and smog wiped out nearly all of Friday's practice runs. More rain is forecast for Sunday's race.
Justin Bergman, The Associated Press