MANAMA: Charles Leclerc heralded a return to form for Ferrari at the start of Formula One’s new era by handing the Italian glamor team their first pole position in over two years on Saturday at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Monegasque lit up the timing screens with a lap of one minute 30.558 seconds to beat world champion Max Verstappen by 0.123 seconds.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz missed out on handing Ferrari their first front-row lockout since the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix by 0.006 seconds and had to settle for third. That was also the last time a Ferrari started a race from the front.
“It feels good. The last two years have been incredibly difficult for the team and we knew this year’s rules would be an opportunity for us,” said Leclerc after taking his 10th career pole and second in Bahrain.
“I am very happy today in a tricky qualifying session; I wasn’t happy with my driving,” he added.
Ferrari have not won a race since the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix but have been hyped by rivals as early favorites in Formula One’s new era, featuring cars designed to radically new rules aimed at improving the racing spectacle.
Verstappen, who clinched his first title at last year’s finale in Abu Dhabi, had gone fastest in the final practice session earlier on Saturday.
He could not hit the sweet spot with the balance when it mattered, however, but is confident he has a strong car for Sunday’s race.
“It was a bit of hit and miss, Q2 seemed quite good, Q3 was a struggle with the balance and to get it together,” said the Dutchman.
“But we have a good race car and it is a good start for tomorrow.”
Mercedes’s predictions of a difficult start to their quest for a record ninth straight constructors’ title, dismissed as gamesmanship by rivals, came true.
Lewis Hamilton was more than half a second off Leclerc’s pace in fifth while George Russell, in his first race as a full-time Mercedes driver, was a disappointing ninth.
“Those guys ahead of us are in another league,” Hamilton told Sky Sports. “My battles are with the guys behind most likely.”
F1 returnee Kevin Magnussen put his Ferrari-powered Haas seventh, signalling a change of fortunes for the US-owned team, which finished at the bottom of the standings last year.
The Dane, replacing sacked Russian Nikita Mazepin, could have qualified even higher but parked up with a hydraulics problem during the final phase of qualifying.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who only came out of isolation on Thursday after recovering from COVID-19, failed to make it past the first knockout stage of qualifying and will start 18th.
Rookie Guanyu Zhou, who will become the first Chinese driver to race in Formula One on Sunday, made it into the second phase of qualifying on his debut. He will line up 15th.
Nico Hulkenberg, standing in for Sebastian Vettel, who has been sidelined by COVID-19, will start 17th.