Verstappen pips Hamilton to Bahrain pole as F1 season kicks off with a bang

Max Verstappen made it two pole positions in as many races as the 2021 Formula One season began in the fashion most neutral fans would have liked, the Dutchman piping rival Lewis Hamilton by just 0.388s.

Red Bull Racing had appeared to have the upper hand throughout pre-season testing, and the Dutchman also topped all three free practice sessions leading into qualifying. But it would be a foolish man indeed to write off Mercedes so quickly, and Hamilton certainly had the bit between his teeth, setting purple sector times and leaping to the top of the timesheets with just the Red Bull of Verstappen following in the closing moments.

Just as it was in the 2020 season finale, however, it was Verstappen who had the answer, pulling out his best lap at the optimum time to take what is almost unfathomably only the third pole position of his F1 career.

“Of course we already had a great test week, and there are no guarantees when we came back here for the race weekend,” Verstappen told Sky Sports F1’s David Coulthard afterward. “The whole week so far the car has been working really well and it’s been really enjoyable to drive. Of course with the wind changing a lot around every session, it’s not easy to set up the car, but it all worked out perfectly in qualifying so very happy with pole position.

“My first lap in Q3 wasn’t amazing so I knew there was more in it. You never know how much, but finally the balance was there and you can push a little bit more. The track is quite hot, so you have to be careful with overheating the rear tyres. Luckily where it mattered, we could perform. In general, the car has been working really well in short and long runs so I’m just looking forward to it. We have a good car and now we need to make sure we have a good clean start and first lap.”

For Hamilton, second on the grid will be no disaster, the seven-time world champion knows exactly what is required on race day and paid tribute to his team after stepping from the car.

“Congratulations to Max, he was so fast on that last lap,” said Hamilton. “I gave it absolutely everything I had on that last lap but unfortunately it wasn’t good enough. There’s always more, but that was the best I could do for sure, I got absolutely everything I could from the car.

“I think we did a really good job from testing to come here. The lads back in the factory, they’ve really done such an amazing job and our aerodynamicist, she has been giving us such amazing information for us to improve and get the car where we needed it to be closer to the Red Bulls.”

Behind the top three on the grid, there was big reason to cheer for Ferrari fans after a dismal 2020, Charles Leclerc putting his car fourth on the grid ahead of a sensational Pierre Gasly. Daniel Ricciardo edged new teammate Lando Norris in what is sure to be another intriguing battle between the McLaren drivers as Carlos Sainz, Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll rounded out the top ten.

Of the other drivers, Red Bull new boy Sergio Perez may be disappointed to line up 11th on the grid after a strong Friday and Sebastian Vettel’s miserable run continues, the new Aston Martin F1 Team driver only managing 18th on the grid after he had to back off his final run in Q1 after a spin from Nikita Mazepin.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.