By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton captured pole position for Mercedes for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in a thrilling finish to a rain-hit qualifying session on Saturday.
Hamilton saved the best for last with his final lap after Australian Daniel Ricciardo had topped the timesheets only seconds earlier on his first race weekend for champions Red Bull.
The 29-year-old Briton's time of one minute 44.231 seconds on a wet Albert Park track was just over three-tenths of a second faster than Ricciardo, who upstaged quadruple world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel to delight the home fans.
Vettel, winner of the last nine races of 2013, set only the 13th best time.
"Today made it so much harder with the conditions, but I'm really happy with the job the team did," said Hamilton. "These cars are much harder driving in the wet."
Mercedes' Nico Rosberg will start third on the grid alongside McLaren's 21-year-old Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen, who underlined his talent with a poised drive in trying conditions.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso qualified fifth with Jean-Eric Vergne sixth fastest for Toro Rosso.
It was the first time Vettel had failed to make the final round of qualifying since he started 11th on the grid in Belgium in 2012, before battling through the field to finish the race second.
Vettel will move up to 12th, however, with Williams' Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas in 10th place taking a five place penalty for a gearbox change.
The 26-year-old German was in esteemed company, with two other champions - McLaren's Jenson Button and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen - also failing to get into the final group of 10. Button qualified 11th.
Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, was 12th fastest in his first race since returning to Maranello after crashing into the wall at turn 14.
Lotus's horror week continued as both Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado were among the six slowest failing to make it through the first round of qualifying.
Grosjean locked up and spun off after posting the slowest lap time in the opening session, while Maldonado was unable even to trouble the timesheets.
Sauber's Mexican Esteban Gutierrez, who qualified 19th, also collected a five-place grid penalty for the race for having a new gearbox.
(Editing by Alan Baldwin)