Formula One champion Max Verstappen is in the right place to win his first Bahrain Grand Prix by starting from the pole in Sunday’s season-opening race.
The desert track has been barren for Verstappen, who failed to finish three of his first four races there. The two-time reigning champion seemed cursed in Sakhir last year when his Red Bull failed just laps from the end with a steering problem.
Ferrari clinched a 1-2 finish with Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. and appeared to be Verstappen’s top challengers for last year’s title. But after opening 2022 with two DNFs in three races, Verstappen recovered to win an F1 record 15 races in a dominating year.
“Hopefully no crazy things will happen,” Verstappen said of Sunday. He will be joined on the front row by Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez.
Perez beat Leclerc to qualify second, .138 seconds behind Verstappen under the floodlights.
“Very happy to be on pole,” Verstappen said after securing his 21st career pole. “We’ve shown really good race pace but we need to show that (on Sunday).”
Leclerc was third and starts on the second row alongside teammate Sainz.
“We were in the fight (for pole), which I probably did not expect. That’s a good surprise,” Leclerc said. “Realistically, they (Red Bull) seem to be very, very quick. We have taken a step forward but I don’t think it’s enough.”
Leclerc posted only one time in the final qualifying group nd didn’t take a last shot at pole in order to save tires for Sunday.
“We need to keep in our mind that in the race run, we seem to be a little bit on the backfoot compared to Red Bull,” he said. “I think we are in a better place starting third with new tires than starting first with old or a bit further up.”
Fernando Alonso showed good speed for Aston Martin as the 41-year-old Spaniard qualified fifth, followed by Mercedes drivers George Russell and seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton.
Alonso was not expecting to be challenging for his 99th career podium in his first race for Aston Martin.
“Going for a podium in race one, it feels too good to be true,” Alonso said. “If we have an opportunity for sure, we will take it.”
It shows how far performance has fallen at once-dominant Mercedes — which won eight straight constructors’ titles — that both drivers trailed Alonso yet still felt their performances exceeded expectations.
“I thought today may be worse than it ended up being,” Hamilton said. “We did some great work overnight.”
Russell believes a realistic target is third place on Sunday but that Alonso might get in the way.
“Qualifying three tenths behind Ferrari when they have probably been the fastest car on single lap pace is positive,” Russell said. “Fernando is probably more of a dark horse than Ferrari.”
Alonso’s teammate, Lance Stroll, was eighth.
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and new Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg rounded out the top 10.
Alonso led Friday’s second practice ahead of the two Red Bulls, raising hopes he could challenge for pole. And then Stroll surprised many observers by returning so quickly behind the wheel, after missing preseason testing because of an injury in a bicycle accident. He needed minor surgery on his right wrist.
F1 newcomer Logan Sargeant, the first American driver on the grid since 2015, was 16th for Williams. He surged up from last on his last lap and narrowly missed out on advancing into the second round, with McLaren’s Lando Norris just edging him out.
Veteran Kevin Magnussen was 17th for Haas; new McLaren driver Oscar Piastri was 18th, then AlphaTauri’s Nyck de Vries. Frenchman Pierre Gasly, who has won an F1 race, was last on his Alpine debut.
In the third and final practice, Hamilton was fourth ahead of Leclerc and Russell.
Hamilton sounded frustrated with his team when they didn’t get back out in time at the end for practice starts.
“Come on guys. This is twice now,” said Hamilton, whose car was pushed back into the garage.
Hamilton didn’t win a race last year for the first time in his 16-year career. Russell got the team’s only victory in the penultimate race in Brazil.
Team principal Toto Wolff thinks there will be wins, and hopefully they won’t take so long.
“I’m sure we can win races this season,” he said after qualifying. “But it’s really the mid and long term that we need to look at, and which decisions we need to take.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.