It is back to the drawing board for four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel after sensationally bombing out in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.

In a major reality check, Vettel will start 12th on the grid for Sunday's season opener at Albert Park after being upstaged in the wet by Australian teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who brought the crowd to their feet by qualifying second in his Red Bull debut.

Vettel had looked to have overcome reliability problems and a lack of pace that troubled both Red Bull drivers during pre-season testing when he was fourth in Friday's final practice session.

But he appeared no closer to resolving his Renault-powered vehicle's dramas when he failed to feature in the third and final qualifying session in Melbourne - the first time he had missed the top 10 shootout since China in 2012. ''It is disappointing because the car seemed to be very good yesterday,'' Vettel said.

''I was struggling a little bit more, especially in the wet conditions. Basically I struggled for driveability, for control.

''For some reason we have lost that overnight, so we need to understand why that happened.''

Vettel initially clocked the 13th-fastest time but will start from 12th after a reshuffle caused by 10th-quickest Valtteri Bottas of Williams copping a five grid spot penalty for a gearbox change.

Vettel won't need to look far for inspiration after Ricciardo's heroics in his first F1 race since replacing compatriot Mark Webber at Red Bull.

''I think the car has potential. Danny is showing what it can do. He puts the car where it belongs,'' Vettel said.

It seemed only something special would snap Vettel's dominance in 2014 and F1 was at serious risk of becoming boring after he snared his fourth title in 2013 with three races to go.

In Melbourne, Vettel had been hoping to set a record of 10 straight F1 race victories. But few would have predicted the impact a raft of radical new technical rules would have on the Red Bull team.

No one was writing off Vettel due to Red Bull's vast experience, wealth and capabilities. But clearly he won't be having it all his own way in 2014 judging by his humbling qualifying experience on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Mercedes pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton says he's honoured to be mentioned in the same breath as one of his formula one heroes, Nigel Mansell, whose 32 career poles he equalled.

Only one Englishman has more career pole positions - Jim Clark, who took top billing at 33 grands prix between 1960-68.

Hamilton and his Mercedes prevailed in wild wind and rain during Saturday's qualifying session at Albert Park.

''Today was so much harder for everyone in these conditions,'' he said.

''These cars are a lot harder to drive in the wet and [it was] the first time for me driving this car in the rain.

''It was a serious task and challenge today, so to be up here is a great showing.''

Hamilton, seeking a 23rd grand prix victory, said he had long-admired the success of Mansell, who won 31 races.

''He's one of the great Brit drivers we've had, to have achieved so much,'' Hamilton said.

''To be in formula one has always been my dream, but to get as many poles as him is an incredible achievement.''

AAP