Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc has beaten Max Verstappen by just over a tenth to take pole position for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. The Monacan set a 30.558 to take his second pole in Sakhir, it had looked to be a Ferrari front row lockout until Verstappen went six-thousandths of a second faster than Carlos Sainz.
The battle between Ferrari and Red Bull had been expected, Leclerc setting his best lap in the closing moments of the session, pushing the world champion down to second. While Sainz did manage to improve on his final run, he could not move ahead of Verstappen, who also improved on his last lap. Sergio Perez was fourth going over two tenths behind bot the Dutchman and the Spaniard.
Sainz had set the benchmark on the first run in Q3, however on his final run he did go fastest in the first sector, as the lap went on, he lost time and stayed second before Verstappen went faster. The two former teammates both improving on their final laps, although it didn’t change their position.
Ferrari’s gamble in sacrificing 2021 and focus on this years regulation change at this early phase of the season appears to be paying off. Leclerc has been the faster Ferrari driver particularly in the first sector, while Sainz hasn’t been able to generate the same front tyre temperature.
Leclerc said, “Obviously the last two years for the team have been extremely difficult but I knew it was just a matter of time before we got back to the top. It has been a difficult session. I was not entirely happy with my driving but we managed put it together at the end and take pole.”
Verstappen adding, “It was a bit hit and miss. Q2 seemed good then Q3 was a bit of a struggle to put the balance together. But we have a good car – a good race car as well, which at the end of the day is the most important. A good start to the new era.”
The gap between Ferrari and Red Bull to the rest of the field, appears to be similar to the gap Ferrari were behind Red Bull and Mercedes last season. A Verstappen-Leclerc front row could lead to fireworks in the opening stint of the race.
Mercedes did not look to have the pace to challenge for pole, the scepticism from their rivals, the claims they made in the build-up to this weekend about them not being in the hunt are true. Lewis Hamilton only fifth fastest three tenths behind Perez out-qualifying his former teammate Valtteri Bottas by over three tenths.
Hamilton saying, he was “generally really happy” was another clear sign of Mercedes’ lack of pace considering he finished seven-tenths off pole, a rarity for the seven-time world champion. The feeling is that Mercedes have struggled to unlock the potential of the car as well as struggling with porpoising.
Hamilton adding “Those guys will be going away, we’re not in the fight with those. My battle is with the guys behind, most likely.”
The step-up in Ferrari power appears to be yielding results, four of the six cars making it through to Q3. Bottas put his Alfa Romeo sixth going a quarter of a second faster than the Haas of Kevin Magnussen. Magnussen’s return to the sport after a year out was far from perfect, a power steering hydraulics problem at the end of Q2 left him with only a single in the final part of qualifying
Fernando Alonso put his Alpine eighth fastest, the two-time champion two-hundredths of a second faster than George Russell’s Mercedes. Russell appeared to run a little wide out of the first corner on his final run and lost a heap of time going ninth, he only made a single attempt in Q3, but was still over a tenth faster than Pierre Gasly.
However that single attempt by Russell, left him a second slower, partly due to his error, Mercedes also might have chosen to save an extra set of soft tyres knowing that they will need to fight and use different strategies in the race tomorrow.
Alonso’s improvement at the end of Q2 knocked his Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon out. The Frenchman finishing over two tenths ahead of Mick Schumacher, the German driver having his best qualifying of his career. McLaren’s Bahraini nightmare continued, Lando Norris going thirteenth a hundredth behind Ocon.
Alex Albon on his return to the sport put his Williams fourteenth going nearly a tenth ahead of Guanyu Zhou. Albon was first out in Q2 taking a different strategy, while the Chinese driver was faster he had his fastest time deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn Five.
Yuki Tsunoda’s final lap wasn’t enough to get him out of the Q1 drop zone, the Alpha Tauri driver going a quarter of a tenth faster than Nico Hulkenberg. The Aston Martin driver, standing in for Sebastian Vettel who tested positive for Covid-19, the last lap moved him just under a tenth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo splitting the two Aston Martins going also nearly a tenth faster than Lance Stroll. A disappointing session for the Silverstone based team, who on paper have the slowest car on the grid, Stroll two tenths behind Hulkenberg.
Nicolas Latifi failed to improve on his final run in Q1 leaving the Williams driver two thousandths behind Stroll.