Motor racing: Verstappen puts Red Bull on pole in Bahrain with Hamilton behind him

(REUTERS, AFP) – Dutchman Max Verstappen put Red Bull on pole position for Formula One’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Saturday (March 27), with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton alongside on the front row for Mercedes.

It was the first time in the sport’s V6 turbo hybrid era that began in 2014 that Mercedes, winners of the drivers’ and constructors’ championships for the past seven years, had not taken pole for the first race.

Verstappen, who has 10 race wins, took his fourth career pole in 1min 28.997sec to outpace Hamilton by 0.338 of a second with the Briton ahead of Finn Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes.

“It all worked out perfectly,” said the 23-year-old, rated the main obstacle to Hamilton’s quest for an eighth title.

Charles Leclerc was fourth for Ferrari ahead of Pierre Gasly of AlphaTauri and the McLarens of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris.

Carlos Sainz was eighth in the second Ferrari ahead of two-time champion Fernando Alonso, on his return to F1 with the Alpine team, and Lance Stroll, who was 10th for Aston Martin.

Stroll’s new team-mate four-time champion Sebastian Vettel struggled and qualified 18th, failing to make it out of Q1.

“Of course, we had a great test last week, but there are no guarantees here,” said a smiling Verstappen.

‘Great start’

“The car worked really well and it was enjoyable to drive. It’s a great start.”

Hamilton, who showed much-improved speed compared to the pre-season test, congratulated his rival.

“He was so fast on that last lap. I gave it everything, but it wasn’t enough.

“There is always more, but that was the best I could do in getting it out of my car.”

Verstappen said he felt confident in the long run performance of his car.

“I am looking forward to the race. I’ve got a good car and just hope for a good clean start. I’ll keep on pushing.”

After a hot day at the Bahrain International Circuit, the track temperature was 35 deg C and the air was 30 as the floodlit session began with George Russell of Williams leading the way.

He pitted immediately without logging a time and it was left to Mick Schumacher to take that honour, in the process putting the letters MSC on top of the lists for the first time since his father seven-time champion Michael retired in 2012.

The usual suspects were soon joining in with Hamilton and then Verstappen going top before Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda split them in his AlphaTauri to take second with an impressive lap.

At 20, the feisty Tsunoda is the first driver born this century to race in F1 and he made an immediate impact.

Encouraged by his early speed, Hamilton chose a set of worn tyres for his second run while Verstappen rued some damage to his car after running over a kerb.

At the top it remained unchanged, but there was a shock among those taking an early exit with Vettel eliminated in 18th along with Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, Williams’ Nicholas Latifi, and the Haas pairing of rookies Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.

Maranello new boy Sainz squeezed through in P15, but his engine cut out as he limped back to the pits before Q2 began with the leaders running on mediums.

Hamilton topped the first runs with a three-tenths advantage on Verstappen ahead of Bottas while Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and Ricciardo, still adjusting to their new teams and cars, lost their laps by running off at Turn 4.

The second runs saw Ferrari, choosing to run on softs, sweep to the front with Leclerc and then Sainz going fastest, ahead of Hamilton, Norris and Bottas on mediums.

The Ferrari pair represented the Italian giants’ youngest line-up since 1968 and have clearly reinvigorated the Italian team.

Verstappen secured his place in the top-10 shoot-out in seventh but Perez missed the cut in 11th. Tsunoda qualified 13th.

Q3 began with Gasly setting the pace before Hamilton went top until Verstappen, hunting him down, beat his time by just 0.023sec. Bottas was fourth behind Gasly and Sainz fifth.

Bottas led the train ahead of Hamilton for the final run, but neither could stop Verstappen who delivered an emphatic final flying lap.

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