Valtteri Bottas achieved his 16th career pole position in Formula 1 by topping Saturday's qualifying session for the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix.
However the experienced Finn was only 0.026s ahead of his new team mate George Russell, the Williams driver making his debut for Mercedes this weekend in place of Lewis Hamilton, meaning another front row lock-out for the team.
Red Bull's Max Verstappen had to settle for his all-too familiar third place ahead of a strong showing from Ferrari's Charles Leclerc.
It was a disappointing second round for several top names, with Renault's Estaban Ocon, Red Bull's Alex Albon and McLaren's Lando Norris joining Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel on the sidelines.
The clear skies overhead might had long since turned pitch black, but Bahrain International Circuit was sparkling under the spotlights as Formula 1 embarked on the penultimate qualifying session of this most unusual of championship seasons. 20 drivers were ready to get going but for the first time since 2007 Lewis Hamilton wasn't among them meaning there was more uncertainty than ever about how would emerge on top.
Q1: Bottas pips Verstappen as debutants Aitken and Fittipaldi miss the cut
First to head out were the two Haas cars, with Pietro Fittipaldi making his debut in place of Romain Grosjean - and getting hit with a grid penalty for his troubles after the team had to use a new power unit in the rebuilt VF-20, meaning he would be starting from the back regardless of how he did. It was his team mate Kevin Magnussen who laid down the first lap of the session with a time of 55.464s on soft tyres, which was soon bettered by McLaren's Carlos Sainz.
Ferrari were soon in action with Charles Leclerc going top ahead of Sebastian Vettel, and then it was the turn of the Mercedes drivers to shine with Valtteri Bottas setting the pace with 0:54.607s on medium tyres just ahead of George Russell who was having the opportunity of a lifetime filling in for the absent Hamilton. But the early honours went to Racing Point, with Sergio Perez' time of 0:54.267s proving over three tenths quicker than Bottas and Lance Stroll also slipping into third behind the two Silver Arrows.
Max Verstappen was next into action and his time of 0:54.037s was good enough to go top, with his Red Bull team mate Alex Albon fifth quickest after Daniel Ricciardo opened his account in third place in the Renault. Last man to set a time - after his initial effort was deleted for exceeding track limits - was Lando Norris, slotting into tenth place after the first set of runs. Meanwhile a strong opening run from Jack Aitken - subbing for Russell at Williams - had put the British-Korean driver temporarily into 15th place ahead of his team mate Nicholas Latifi who found himself in the drop zone with AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly, the two Alfa Romeos of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi, and Fittipaldi unsurprisingly in last place.
Gasly soon managed to a much more representative to briefly feature in second and Giovinazzi also clawed his say to safety. Then the two Mercedes returned on soft tyres to take first and third for Bottas and Russell respectively, sandwiching Verstappen in second. Norris also found more time on this latest run to go fourth pushing Gasly down to fifth ahead of Perez, Leclerc, Vettel, Esteban Ocon and Daniil Kvyat. By this time Albon had been pushed all the way down to 15th and had suffered oversteer at the start of his final push lap, but the team had correctly calculated that he would survive the cut. It meant Magnussen just missed out on progressing to the second round along with Latifi, Aitken, Raikkonen and Fittipaldi.
Q2: Verstappen takes charge as Ocon, Albon, Vettel and Norris fail to get through
Sainz was first out on track at the start of Q2 but by the time he was ready to staty his flying lap there was a traffic jam of cars emerging from pit lane. Bottas was soon back at the top with a time of 0:53.803s, just 0.016s quicker than Russell while Verstappen was third fastest but two tenths off the Finn's efforts. All three were on mediums, while Kvyat was fourth on the soft compound. After that it was two-by-two, with the Renaults (Ricciardo and Ocon) followed by the Ferraris (Leclerc and Vettel) and the McLarens (Sainz and Norris).
The Racing Point cars once again triggered a ripple effect, Perez setting the best time of the session so far with 0:53.787s and Stroll (on soft tyres like like his team mate) was placed fourth. A good second run by Sainz - also on the soft compound - saw the Spaniard jump up to third. The Ferraris had been pushed out of the top ten but a new run saw Leclerc up to sixth on the mediums; however Vettel was called in to pit lane, the team apparently worried about the raw speed available from the replacement power unit that had been fitted during the interval between final practice and the start of qualifying.
There was still time for one last volley of flying laps: none of the drivers felt sanguine enough about the situation and all 15 were back out on track for one last go. Verstappen was able to find more speed to go top with a time of 0:53.647s, but Albon was unable to find anything extra and ended up being eliminated along with Ocon, Vettel and Giovinazzi. Surprisingly Norris was the slowest of all in Q2, apologising to the team over the radio for going early after he abandoned his final push lap which left him 15th on the grid for tomorrow's race.
Q3: Bottas on pole as Russell takes second from Verstappen and Leclerc
Making an initial foray on used tyres, Bottas was first into action in the final top ten pole shoot-out, with Russell behing him making his first-ever appearance in Q3. However it was Verstappen who stole the show with a time 0:53.591s, quickly challenged by an impressive time from Leclerc clocking in just 0.022s slower than the Red Bull leaving Bottas and Russell in third and fourth place.
Racing Point held back and made a late arrival on the timesheets, Perez splitting the two Mercedes cars in fourth. No sooner had he set his time than Bottas and Russell were immediately back out on track on new tyres with Bottas beating Verstappen's time by two tenths with a lap of 0:53.377s, and Russell dutifully claiming second for a provisional front row lock-out for the team.
Surprisingly Leclerc decided that his work was done and he played no further part in the session as the others all went out for one last time. Bottas could find nothing more to wring from his car, but it was enough to stay ahead of slightly better laps from both Russell and Verstappen that did not alter the standings. Leclerc was vindicated in sitting out the end of the session as he held on to fourth from Perez. Kvyat punched in a late effort to go sixth ahead of Ricciardo and Sainz, with Gasly just able to get the better of Stroll for ninth.