MONTREAL - Sebastien Vettel will be in a daunting spot when he lines up directly behind the all-but unbeatable Mercedes AMG duo of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton for the start of the Canadian Grand Prix.
The defending champion saw his streak of three straight pole positions in Canada come to an end in qualifying on Saturday afternoon.
Instead, Vettel will start on the second row when the race begins Sunday in what is forecast to be near-perfect 27C weather. The German posted the third-quickest lap for Red Bull, while Rosberg edged Hamilton for the pole.
Vettel's time of one minute 15.548 seconds on the 4.361-kilometre Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was more than a half a second behind the two Mercedes, who have dominated F1 since the introduction this year of turbo engines.
"I'm always confident when I step in the car that it's good enough to make it, so we'll have to wait and see," Vettel said. "In terms of fighting with the car, it's still not where I want it to be, still not yet behaving the way I prefer.
"It's not like last year when I was stepping into a dream car and everything was smooth and perfect. This year, we're not tickling the right spots yet."
The 26-year-old Vettel won the last four F1 championships for Renault-powered Red Bull, and took the chequered flag at the Canadian Grand Prix for the first time last year. But how times have changed.
The Mercedes team has now claimed all seven pole positions to go with victories in all six F1 races this season.
And the long straightaways leading to tight turns and chicanes on the Gilles-Villeneuve track seem to fit the Mercedes package to a tee, with its superior engine power and solid braking.
"It was very tight between third and sixth, so I'm happy I got the last lap right," said Vettel, who finished ahead of a pair of Mercedes-powered Williams cars driven by Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. The second Red Bull piloted by Daniel Ricciardo was sixth.
"It's good to start third, right behind the Mercedes. We'll see what we can do from there in the race."
Rosberg won the day when he put up a best lap of 1:14.874 late in the last of three qualifying sessions and Hamilton fell short by less than a 10th of a second on his final run.
"Nico did a better job today," said Hamilton, without a trace of the sullen behaviour he showed after coming second to Rosberg in qualifying two weeks ago in Monaco.
There, Hamilton felt he was cheated out of a chance to win pole position when Rosberg pulled off late in qualifying, drawing a yellow caution flag. The two have since talked it over and announced that the animosity brewing since the start of the season was over and that they are friends again.
Whether the truce holds will be seen when they start side by side on the front row for the race.
Rosberg will have the upper hand if he keeps the lead. It may he tough for Hamilton to overtake on the tight track.
"It's not that easy, especially with Nico so fast," said Hamilton. "Overtaking is going to be very difficult — to overtake the same car as mine, especially when we're so close in pace.
"I'll do what I can. The thing is to try to get as many points as we can."
In Monaco, where it is all-but impossible to overtake, Rosberg ended Hamilton's four-race winning run and took a four-point lead in driver standings.
"I know it's a track where he's really strong, so I'm all the more happy that it worked out," Rosberg said of his teammate. "Having won the last race, it just helps a bit.
"Lewis had that winning streak and to bring that to an end was important."
Rosberg sees the race going the same way the others have, with the two Mercedes battling one another for the victory and the rest of the grid fighting it out for third spot.
But Hamilton said his team can't be cocky, especially on a tricky, slippery track known for mishaps and upsets.
"I don't think it's just between the two of us," said Hamilton. "In qualifying, Sebastian wasn't as close as perhaps they might be, but their pace was good in the last race and I anticipate that they'll be quite strong.
"So we definitely cannot disregard Sebastian or Red Bull. We need to be cautious still, and make sure we keep pushing."
Red Bull and Renault were left scrambling with the engine change, while Mercedes came up with the best package of engine and car.
The new 1.6-litre engines are decidedly quieter, without the high-pitched whine of past F1 cars, and they're slower. Qualifying times were more than two seconds slower than last year, when Vettel took the pole in 1:12.425.
It is still early in the 19-race season, and there is a small chance someone will find a way to close the gap with Mercedes before it is over.
"They've been very dominant the first couple of races, but we are working hard," said Vettel. "We're completely motivated and we have a strong belief in ourselves.
"I think that's the reason we've been so successful the last couple of years. So, rest assured, we won't give up."
Vettel matched his best qualifying result this season, while both Bottas and Massa had their best placings. Massa has started no better than seventh on the grid and his best race finish was sixth.
Cars were sliding on the slick surface both in the morning practice session and in qualifying.
The first 20-minute qualifying ended with 16 seconds left when Marcus Ericsson crashed his Caterham, bringing out the red flags. Earier, Pastor Maldonado's Lotus stopped on the track, ending his qualifying early.
Esteban Gutierrez did not take part in qualifying after crashing his Sauber in practice.