Until the completion of the 2020 Formula 1 season, he didn’t have a single pole here at Bahrain nor did he ever record a win at the venue. All that he had here in the heart of the Persian Gulf was a solitary podium. Now, as his imposing Red Bull has fired the opening salvo by clinching a ballsy pole in the heat of the desert, you wonder if Max Verstappen can convert his maiden pole at the Sakhir into a special win at the 2021 Bahrain GP?
And should Max Verstappen go on to do so, he will go some distance to puncture the hopes of the Mercedes fans, and shall perhaps shape the season-opening round with somewhat different colors.
Max Verstappen Dominates
The usual narrative, season after season, from the onset of 2017 has seen an out and out Mercedes dominance- the cars showing rampaging speed during qualifying only to ramp up their performance over the race-day. With Lewis Hamilton and his daunting Mercedes being in the threatening form that they’ve so instrumentally demonstrated, one saw the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull simply playing catch up for the better part of the last half a decade in Formula 1.
But that saga, it could be said, was turned on its head here at the qualifying of the 2021 Bahrain GP, as Max Verstappen with his 1:28:997 beat the top five drivers by nearly four-tenths of a second. Easily the faster of the two Red Bulls throughout the qualifying, Verstappen came and did what plenty would’ve expected: dominate Sergio Perez and create that early pressure.
But in doing so, the flying Dutchman didn’t only emerge on top of the teammate battle, he served an early reminder to seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton that the 2021 season will be no easy day for the legend.
“It’s a great feeling to be on pole and I haven’t experienced a season start like this. After the victory in Abu Dhabi the whole Team has been pushing really hard and even more motivated. There is still no guarantee for the rest of the year but everyone here and back at the factory have done a great job to give me a car like this and they should be very proud. Honda have also been working very hard this winter, just like every year. They are flat out all of the time and like us they just want to win. It is really enjoyable working with them and they are very passionate which I like, so a big credit to Honda for the result today as they have had a great winter. After testing it is always difficult to know where you are and we really didn’t know how it would be in qualifying but when you have a lap like that in Q3 and such a good feeling in the car you can be happy. We have to finish it off tomorrow but if I can have a good start I’m confident we can do a good job,” said Verstappen.
Meanwhile, in second and third were Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, respectively just six-thousandths of a second behind the Red Bull.
Can the two Mercedes find a way to topple Verstappen’s hopes of a maiden win at the Bahrain GP, we shall have to wait and see!
In what can truly be called a very spirited outing for the zesty Alpha Tauri, it was Pierre Gasly‘s impressive fifth that created about the same noise as that of Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc‘s fighting fourth. Leclerc and teammate Carlos Sainz, the latter managing eighth eventually, were among the fastest runners on the track during Q2, it mustn’t be forgotten.
Ricciardo the quicker of the two McLarens
Meanwhile Daniel Ricciardo, ever the pacy man in his brand new McLaren usurped Lando Norris, by taking sixth, setting an impressive 1:29:927 in his final flying lap in Q3. This is when Norris had so clearly seemed the faster of the two McLarens pretty much for the better part of the qualifying until the Australian upped his game in the final moments of the quali battle.
“It’s a pleasant relief to get the first quali out of the way and get a decent result. I think, after the test, I was fairly comfortable in the car but probably more so on long runs. I still felt that, if anything, my Saturdays were going to need improving – and I think they still do – but I certainly made a nice step from a couple of weeks ago and I’m happy. We’ve got a good platform to build on now, I’m really happy with how we approached it as a team, not putting too much pressure on me. We were a bit off the pace yesterday, but they could see I was just trying to figure it out.
“I don’t want to do somersaults or backflips just yet, but it’s certainly a nice start for the campaign and I think we’ll do alright tomorrow. There’s a mix of cars around us, so I’m looking forward to that, and with Lando alongside hopefully we can get some big points for the team and start the year right,” said Ricciardo.
The returning former double world champion Fernando Alonso set an early reminder to doubters who may have questioned his return (at nearly 40 years of the age), the Spaniard bolstering his Alpine machine to a fine 1:30:249, going nearly three-thousands quicker on Lance Stroll.
“We have to be pleased with our qualifying session today. I wasn’t totally confident with the car balance in any of the practice sessions this weekend. In qualifying, though, the temperature was a lot cooler and I was able to attack and feel the car a little bit better. It was really exciting to drive these cars again with low fuel and peak performance from the tyres. Qualifying is always amazing to experience in Formula 1 and I have missed that feeling! The plan for tomorrow is to attack and score points. We’ll try to make up some positions from our starting spot but we have to be wary of the cars around us as some of our competitors are starting on the Medium tyres so it will be a close race,” added the Spaniard.
Who lost out in Q2?
The biggest disappointment of the evening, you could say, was Sergio Perez losing out in Q2, knocked out as a result of the team deciding not to put the Mexican on the softer compounds, which aided the Ferraris as seen early in the evening. There was disappointment for 27-year-old Italian Antonio Giovinazzi, who while bagging a twelfth looked the part of a driver who could’ve done so much better, especially since he held the edge over his experienced teammate.
Meanwhile, Yuki Tsunoda, arguably speaking Japan’s finest export to the sport in a long time, a driver who looked in threatening form especially after going second-quickest in Q1, following Verstappen, missed out and gathered a thirteenth.
“I’m a bit disappointed if I’m honest, I showed I had the pace on the medium tyre in Q1 and I felt confident with our strategy going into Q2, but I just didn’t have the grip during those final laps. It’s a shame to not be starting the race further up the grid but we know the race pace is there, so let’s see what we can do tomorrow. I’ll analyse the data tonight with my engineers, ahead of the race tomorrow, as I am continuing to learn from every lap that I complete. There are still lots of positives to take-away from today – it was my first Formula 1 Qualifying session and I’m feeling confident in the car. I think we’re still in a reasonable position and have the potential to make our way forward during the race,” said Tsunoda.
His 1:31:203 eclipsed the experienced Kimi Raikkonen by nearly a thousandth of a second. Raikkonen on his part would be disappointed especially after looking comfortably ahead of his teammate in the free practice and for much of Friday.
“Not a bad result for the first qualifying of the year: of course, it could have been a bit better, as I made a couple of small mistakes here and there in my laps, but it could have been a lot worse. We made a few changes to the car after the morning to anticipate the conditions and perhaps they didn’t work as well as we expected, but we are still in a good position for the race. We’ll need to see how the weather is tomorrow, do our best and see what we can get out of the race. We are confident our package is better and we can fight for a good result,” added the Finn.
George Russell, however, rightly touted as Mr Saturday for his consistent performances beat teammate Nicholas Latifi eventually after being outshone by the Canadian initially during Q1. The smiling Briton shall begin his Bahrain GP from fifteenth on the grid.
Knocked out in Q1
While the likes of Verstappen and Hamilton battled for the numero uno rank at the front of the grid and kept everyone on the tenterhooks, there were others like Sebastian Vettel who delivered utterly underwhelming returns in the maiden qualifying round of this new season.
“Certainly, we should be a lot faster. We just made it across the line and then yeah, had the issue obviously with the yellow flags during the lap so that made it a little bit impossible to come back, but it is what it is now and we try to see what we can do tomorrow,” concluded the disappointed four-time World Champion.
So was Vettel’s P18 with a 1:32:056, a performance that trailed even Latifi (P17), the dullest moment of the evening?
There weren’t too many prizes on offer with what can be called a forgettable evening for a four-time world champion. But surely looking at teammate Alonso’s sensational quali run, you could say Esteban Ocon, P16, would well have taken stock of the visible gap between a champion driver and the man who needs some catching up to do.
Mick Schumacher, clearly one of the most keenly-anticipated talents on the current grid endured a challenging evening with his P19, though he emerged the faster of the two Haas cars.
Finally, spinning his Haas on one occasion too many at different intervals during the qualifying, Nikita Mazepin, the man who found his maiden quali run a tad bit intimidating emerged the slowest on the grid, his 1:33:273, around 4.2 seconds off the leader’s pace.
But who shall prevail at the end of the season-opener for what’s poised to be a closely-fought Bahrain GP? Will it be Max all the way or will the experienced pro Hamilton cruise ahead and find a way?
The visors are down, the heat is picking and the clock ticking away! We’ve got a race on our hands.