By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The gap between dominant Mercedes and the chasing pack appeared as wide as ever after Saturday's much-criticized qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix but Sebastian Vettel still expects his Ferrari to challenge during the race.
World champion Lewis Hamilton captured his 50th pole with a record-setting lap of one minute 23.837 seconds at the season-opener at Albert Park, well clear of team mate Nico Rosberg and nearly a full second faster than third-placed Vettel.
Vettel and Raikkonen, who will line up fourth, had ample time in the third and final qualifying phase to attempt a quicker lap but tellingly stayed in their garage, meaning the session's final minutes wound down without a driver on track.
Four-times world champion Vettel said the Ferrari drivers eschewed the chance to challenge Hamilton's time to preserve their tyres for Sunday rather than throw in the towel.
"I think I said many times that we have done a step forwards, which I think we have," the German told reporters.
"I think especially tomorrow we should be quite a bit closer. We expected them to be strong in qualifying, which they were.
"Very happy with the lap I had in the end, so we called it there and saved the set of tyres for tomorrow.
"We're not on the front row but we still have high hopes for the race and it's going to be a long year. We know this car has a lot of potential, so I think as a starting out, third and fourth, locking out the second row, is a good achievement."
Raikonnen, Ferrari's last world champion in 2007, also played down the gap to the Silver Arrows.
"I wouldn't put too much into that time difference between us and Mercedes here," the Finn said.
"Obviously, we'd rather be in the front but it's a strange weekend so far.
"For us, it will be better to have slightly warmer conditions to get the tyres ready and working fine but the car feels pretty good.
"So I think it's too early... to see the real picture. They're (Mercedes) obviously still very fast but I don't think you should be too worried."
(Editing by John O'Brien)