Red Bull’s Max Verstappen grabs maiden pole at season-opening Bahrain GP

Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen gestures after claiming pole position at the Bahrain Grand Prix. AP

Sakhir: Max Verstappen said it was a “pleasant surprise” to claim pole position as Red Bull locked out the front row of the grid for Sunday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

The 25-year-old Dutchman, who has never won in Bahrain or at a championship-opening race, secured the 21st pole position of his career with a dazzling pair of laps in the third and final qualifying session (Q3) after struggling with balance and form in practice.

“It’s positive and very surprising,” said Verstappen. “A pleasant and positive surprise to be on pole after all the struggles in practice. Our race car feels better.

“It’s been a bit of a tough start to the weekend, not finding my rhythm, but in qualifying we managed to put the best pieces together and I’m very happy to be on pole.

“It’s amazing. Now, I’m looking forward for tomorrow. Compared to last year everyone knows a bit more about what they are doing with the car and increasing their performances a lot.”

It was Red Bull’s first front row lockout in Bahrain, a track where they have not won since 2013, when the recently-retired Sebastian Vettel was triumphant on his way to his fourth title.

Last year’s pole-sitter and race winner Charles Leclerc was third for Ferrari ahead of team-mate Carlos Sainz, the Monegasque driver choosing to save a set of tyres rather than make a second final flying run.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who was fastest in second and third practice, was unable to repeat that form, but took fifth on the grid for Aston Martin in his first outing for the team since moving from Alpine to replace Vettel.

The 41-year-old Spaniard, who had beaten Verstappen to top the times in final practice earlier on Saturday, said he had always felt pole position was an unrealistic ambition for Aston Martin.

“We aimed to finish in the top five or six and we did that so it’s good,” he said.

Leclerc said: “I think we were in the fight for pole, which was a good surprise to be honest. I did not expect that after testing and after the three practices which were a little bit difficult.

“We managed to find the pace, but not to Red Bull and I think we are better starting third with new tyres than further up with old.

“It was very close. Aston Martin are very quick, Mercedes are very quick. It is looking good for the future and makes Formula 1 much more exciting.”

The Mercedes of George Russell and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton were sixth and seventh ahead of Lance Stroll in the second Aston Martin, Esteban Ocon of Alpine and Haas’s Nico Hulkenberg.

“I thought we’d be a lot further behind so reaching Q3 is great and we did a lot of work overnight,” said Hamilton.

“The engineers did a great job and made a step forward. We’re in a different place, but in qualifying the car just didn’t feel alive. It felt really average.

“It is not an impossible mountain to climb and I think we can definitely close the gap. We’ve just got to focus.”

Times in final round of qualifying (Q3) on Saturday:

1. Max Verstappen (NED/Red Bull) 1:29.708, 2. Sergio Perez (MEX/Red Bull) 1:29.846, 3. Charles Leclerc (MON/Ferrari) 1:30.000, 4. Carlos Sainz (ESP/Ferrari) 1:30.154, 5. Fernando Alonso (ESP/Aston Martin-Mercedes) 1:30.336, 6. George Russell (GBR/Mercedes) 1:30.340, 7. Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes) 1:30.384, 8. Lance Stroll (CAN/Aston Martin-Mercedes) 1:30.836, 9. Esteban Ocon (FRA/Alpine-Renault) 1:30.984, 10. Nico Hülkenberg (GER/Haas-Ferrari) no time.

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