Max Verstappen lays down early marker and beats Hamilton to Bahrain F1 pole

There was frustration for Lewis Hamilton in his powerlessness to prevent Max Verstappen’s superb pole position for the Bahrain Grand Prix. Gloriously, not so for fans. This was exactly the curtain-raiser to the new season required to herald perhaps the most highly anticipated contest between two drivers for a decade.

With the phoney war of testing concluded, this season’s first genuinely competitive conflict has conclusively confirmed that Hamilton and Mercedes are going to face their toughest fight since 2014. Verstappen and his Red Bull team have left them reeling with a positively bruising opening salvo.

Hamilton was beaten into second on the grid for Sunday’s race by a huge four-tenths of a second. This may have only been the first qualifying session of the first race of the season but it is where all pretence is dropped and the true single-lap speed of the cars is given free rein. Verstappen in his Red Bull galloped away.

Mercedes may be hopeful of better on Sunday, having looked on par with Red Bull during race simulations in practice, but Hamilton was clear he did not expect them to match their rivals. Starting on the back foot is something his team have had to endure rarely during their dominance of the past seven years.

Red Bull and Verstappen look stronger going into this opening race of the season than at any time since they last won the championship in 2013. This was their first pole at the season opener since that year.

Hamilton, seeking his eighth title, said he could do no more. “I gave it everything I had but unfortunately it was not good enough. It was the best I could do. We want to be first but we knew that it’s going to be a challenge. We knew from day one on track that the Red Bull was faster than us and we had an uphill slope to climb.”

For Verstappen this will be the 23-year-old’s first real shot at the title, in his seventh season in F1. There was satisfaction at the steps forward his team had made. “You always aim for this,” he said. “In the last few years it hasn’t materialised, we knew what our weaknesses were last year and we addressed them.”

Verstappen was given little margin for error to secure the pole but did so with a magnificent run at Sakhir that will be all too familiar to Hamilton and Mercedes. He led on his first run in Q3 with a time of 1min 29.526sec but Hamilton was just two-hundredths back from the Dutchman. The world champion was extracting more pace from the car than it has shown all weekend. Yet Verstappen declared himself unhappy with his opening hot lap and proceeded to show just what he could do, his final run of 1:28.997 leaving Hamilton with no answer.

Perhaps the frustration was clear when he referred to the aero regulations that had changed since 2020, designed at reeling in Mercedes. “It’s no secret that the changes have of course been done to peg us back,” he said. “We had the changes to our engine last year to do the same thing, but that’s OK, we love a challenge.”

Verstappen and Red Bull had closed out 2020 impressively with pole and a win in Abu Dhabi and their car this year is a significant improvement on that strongly developed model. The Honda engine is finally delivering the power the manufacturer had hoped for when they returned to the sport, while the chassis is solid, offering Verstappen the freedom to really throw it into the corners.

He has long been confident he has the ability to fight Hamilton for the title given the tools, and this season he has just that.

Verstappen will not have a wingman at the front, however, with Sergio Pérez going out in 11th. Given that the Mexican was brought into the team to ensure they had two cars in the mix, it will be a disappointment for the team and one they might ill-afford should the title go to the wire.

Mercedes will be left to determine just what they must now do to ensure they can join the fray. Their car is unstable, a handful to drive and to find its sweet spot. They made considerable improvements before this weekend began but as Hamilton conceded Red Bull hold the whip hand.He has always insisted he would revel in a fight with Verstappen, a prospect that finally seems to be mouth-watering reality.

Mick Schumacher, the 22-year-old son of the seven-times world champion Michael, acquitted himself well on his F1 debut, keeping it clean in a very uncompetitive Haas. He was in 19th place, beating teammate Nikita Mazepin into 20th.

Valtteri Bottas was in third for Mercedes, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in fourth and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly a superb fifth. McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris were in sixth and seventh, with Carlos Sainz in eighth for Ferrari.

Fernando Alonso marked his return to F1 after a two-year absence with a solid performance for Alpine (formerly Renault). The Spaniard finished in ninth with his teammate Esteban Ocon in 16th.

Sebastian Vettel had a difficult first outing for his new team Aston Martin, going out in 18th place, with his teammate Lance Stroll in 10th. Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda, the 20-year-old at his first F1 meeting, put in a good run with 13th for AlphaTauri. George Russell was 15th for Williams, with his teammate Nicholas Latifi 17th. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Räikkönen were in 12th and 14th, respectively.

Vettel will appear before stewards on Sunday for allegedly failing to respect warning flags. The summons for not respecting double-yellow flags at turn one capped a frustrating day for the German.