Max Verstappen confirmed Red Bull Racing’s ascendancy with a comfortable pole position over Lewis Hamilton at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Dutchman held a slender 0.023s advantage over the Mercedes after the pair’s first laps of the top-10 shootout but radioed his team that he wasn’t happy with his lap, hinting at more pace to be squeezed from his RB16B. He duly delivered with a second blistering lap of 1m 28.997s, dismissing Hamilton by 0.388s.
It’s the first time Mercedes hasn’t taken the first pole position of the season since the 2013 Australian Grand Prix, also the scene of Red Bull Racing’s last season-opening pole.
“The whole week so far I think the car has been working really well and has just been really enjoyable to drive,” he said. “It all worked out perfectly in qualifying, and of course very happy with pole position.”
Hamilton conceded the 2021 Mercedes didn’t have the pace to match Red Bull Racing, but the reigning world champion was pleased the car had made enough progress from preseason testing to be in the ballpark.
”I absolutely gave it everything I had, but unfortunately it wasn’t good enough,” he said. “We did a really good job from testing to come here … to be that close considering I think in testing we were further behind.”
Valtteri Bottas qualified third to line up behind Verstappen, but the Finn was 0.589s off pole and 0.201s slower than his teammate, having been uncomfortable in the car all weekend and being down a set of soft tires for the shootout.
“The practice this morning wasn’t quite easy,” he said. I had a lot of issues with the balance of the car and didn’t feel that comfortable.
“In Q3 I had only one set of new tires and it was tricky to compete against Max and Lewis with just one set. It wasn’t too bad, but obviously not where we wanted to be.”
The top three will all start on the medium tire, having used the middle compound to set their best laps in Q2, but Verstappen will be without teammate Sergio Perez in the immediate vicinity after the Mexican was knocked out in 11th, handing a potentially important strategy advantage to Mercedes in the fight for victory.
Charles Leclerc validated Ferrari’s off-season progress from its 2020 nadir with fourth on the grid 0.681s shy of pole. He edged Pierre Gasly to the placewith their final laps, the AlphaTauri driver having been as high as third earlier in the segment.
McLaren teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris were closely matched, qualifying sixth and seventh and 0.9s off the pace.
Carlos Sainz qualified eighth in the second Ferrari ahead of Alpine’s Fernando Alonso in his first qualifying session since 2018 and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.
Perez was the shock elimination of Q2 in 11th. The newly minted Red Bull Racing driver committed to the medium tire rather than the soft for both his flying laps and fell short of the top-10 shootout by just 0.035s.
Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen qualified 12th and 14th for Alfa Romeo, the teammates split by AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda, who couldn’t extract the pace from his medium tires to follow teammate Gasly into Q3.
George Russell qualified 15th for Williams with a single unrepresentative lap time at the beginning of the 15-minute session.
Esteban Ocon was knocked out in 16th, the Alpine driver complaining that his early elimination and near one-second deficit to teammate Alonso was down to encountering yellow flags on his final lap.
The flags were flying for Nikita Mazepin, who spun himself around at the first turn on his final lap, and also Sainz, who suffered an engine problem in the middle sector of the lap, though the Spaniard managed to return to the pits under his own power to continue to Q2. The stewards said they would investigate all drivers who drove through the affected areas after the session to ensure compliance with the caution rules.
Nicholas Latifi qualified 17th for Williams ahead of a disappointed Sebastian Vettel in his first appearance for Aston Martin, although the German was also had his final lap hindered by both yellow-flag incidents.
Haas drivers Mick Schumacher and the backwards-facing Mazepin qualified 19th and 20th, the former more than 0.8s quicker than the latter.