Qualifying: Verstappen claims first pole of 2023 in Bahrain

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing celebrates his pole position in qualifying parc ferme. 04.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Qualifying Day.
© XPB 

Max Verstappen successfully claimed pole position for the Bahrain Grand Prix, with Sergio Perez making it an all-Red Bull front row for tomorrow's race.

Charles Leclerc opted not to make a second run in Q3 meaning that he settled for third place, putting him alongside Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz on the grid for Sunday's start.

Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso wasn't quite able to deliver on his practice promise but was still a strong fifth putting him ahead of Mercedes pair George Russell and Lewis Hamilton.

Alexander Albon (THA) Williams Racing FW45.
04.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Qualifying Day.

After a busy week of pre-season testing and practice, it was time for the 'phoney war' to end and for any sandbagging and deception to be set aside. Qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix was where things really started to matter.

There was no hiding as the cars prepared to set off in the darkness of evening, the sun having set and the floodlights on high beam over Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir. Would the Aston Martin bubble burst, or were we about to get a real shock compared to all the pundits' best expectations coming into the weekend?

Q1: Sainz quickest as rookies Sargeant, Piastri and de Vries miss the cut

It proved to be a bumpy start to the session for Charles Leclerc, who had been quick to get out on track only to have pieces of bodywork fly off the front of the Ferrari, together with a lock-up into turn 1 before he could even get down to work. Instead it was AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda who went to the top of the timesheets with a lap of 1:32.132s, almost three tenths ahead of Leclerc's team mate Carlos Sainz - whose time was subsequently deleted for exceeding track limits at the exit of turn 7.

AlphaTauri rookie Nyck de Vries was half a second further back, but no one else had a chance to complete a lap before a red flag was shown to allow marshals to pick up the debris distributed by the Ferrari, which also gave the Ferrari mechanics a chance to apply duct tape to the wounded SF-23.

A marshal clears debris from the circuit.
04.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Qualifying Day.

There was still a little over 13 minutes remaining when the session resumed, with everyone now keen to rush out and get times on the board as soon as possible. A flood of laps ensued, and this time Sainz managed to stay on track and went quickest of everyone with a time of 1:30.993s, 0.064s quicker than an impressive first run from Mercedes' George Russell in the troubled W14.

Leclerc put his early troubles behind him to go third quickest ahead of Fernando Alonso, the Aston Martin still looking very much in the mix. Max Verstappen and his Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez were only fifth and sixth ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Esteban Ocon, with Tsunoda bundled down to ninth ahead of Alfa Romeo pair Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas.

As the cars headed back to pit lane, currently in the bottom five and at risk of elimination were Nico Hulkenberg, both McLarens (Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri), Williams rookie Logan Sargeant - and Lance Stroll, whose first lap had also fallen foul of track limits, leaving the Canadian one more chance to avoid the ignominy of an early finish to his Saturday. Meanwhile Pierre Gasly was on the bubble in 15th, and both Kevin Magnussen and Alex Albon were a little too close to the cut line for comfort.

With three minutes remaining, all the drivers who felt unsure about making it through to Q2 - which was everyone except Sainz - were back in action for a second and final push. Albon duly shot up to sixth showing that the track was evolving all the time; Stroll made up for his lost lap and went fifth; but de Vries was unable to find more time and found himself backed into the drop zone by a late improvement from Gasly. However a flying lap from Nico Hulkenberg moments later put the Haas into sixth place, and meant that the Frenchman was also out after all.

It was a mixed outcome for McLaren, with Piastri missing the cut along with Sargeant, Gasly, Kevin Magnussen and Nyck de Vries, but Norris just squeaked through despite posting an identical time to Sargeant. There had been no change in the order of the top four, and just 1.188s covered the entire field - a much closer outcome than many had been expected and much more compact than last year's season opener which saw 2.163 seconds from first to last in Q1.

George Russell (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W14 leaves the pits with team mate Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W14.
04.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Qualifying Day.

Q2: Leclerc flies to the top, Stroll squeaks through as Norris misses the cut

There was no great rush for the remaining 15 cars to get back to work after the intermission, but finally Hulkenberg and Stroll got the order to head out with 12 minutes left on the clock. The rest of the drivers were quick to follow except for Albon who remained in the Williams garage for now. Many of the cars were on used tyres, holding back their fresh softs for a later run.

Stroll set the initial benchmark of 1:32.305s despite an error on the lap which allowed Hulkenberg to go almost four tenths ahead. Neither was close to Alonso whose time was eight tenths quicker than the Haas, but both Mercedes were quicker still with Hamilton a couple of tenths quicker than Russell.

Finally it was time for Red Bull to take the gloves off and show their potential, with Verstappen going top with a time of 1:30.503s on a new set of soft tyres, almost a quarter of a second clear of Perez. The Ferraris slotted in behind Alonso with Sainz sixth followed by Leclerc, meaning that Hulkenberg had been pushed down to eighth ahead of Bottas and Norris.

Left out in the cold after the first runs - but with one more chance to come - were Zhou, Stroll, Ocon and Tsunoda. Albon used the mid-session lull to head out on a quiet track to set a time, only to oversteer wide into the run-off at the exit of turn 4. It wrecked his chances of a competitive lap and there was insufficient time for him to pit and get back out again, so the Williams was done for the day.

Despite having been held up at the weighbridge when he had come in, Stroll was again first to get back out for the second and final push lap of Q2. New sets of soft tyres and cooling conditions meant that the timing screens soon lit up with purple sectors and personal bests, and a mighty middle sector saw Leclerc leap to the top with a time of 1:30.282s which was two tenths ahead of Verstappen's existing earlier time, Red Bull having seen no need to head out again. Just one hundredth of a second covered Verstappen, Russell and Hamilton in fourth - extraordinarily close at this early stage of the season.

As the dust settled, Sainz found himself in fifth ahead of Alonso, Perez, Hulkenberg and Ocon, with Stroll taking the last spot for Q3 as the chequered flag came out. Missing out on the final round of qualifying were Norris, Bottas, Zhou and Tsunoda, together with the timeless Albon.

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari. 04.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Qualifying Day.

Q3: Verstappen seizes pole position with Perez riding shotgun

Once again there was a delayed start to the session when the lights went green at the end of pit lane, the teams keenly aware that the cars that went out last would benefit from the best track and temperature conditions on offer. However Verstappen was confident enough to be the first to head out, determined to throw down the gauntlet to his rivals, while Mercedes took a laid back approach with both cars still up on the jacks in the garage.

Verstappen clocked in with a time of 1:29.897s, a tenth quicker than Leclerc with Perez popping into third ahead of Sainz. All four were on fresh tyres, while Stroll was two seconds off provisional pole in fifth on a used set of softs.

Only now did Russell and Hamilton make a move, along with Alonso and Hulkenberg leaving just Esteban Ocon still biding his time in the Alpine bay. Alonso just managed to pip Sainz to fourth place with Hulkenberg going sixth, at least until his time was deleted for track limits. Russell injected himself between Alonso and Sainz while Hamilton was four hundredths behind his team mate for what was now seventh place.

It looked as through the stage was set for a battle royal for pole between Verstappen and Leclerc, but the Monegasque was already out of the Ferrari and calling it a day without a further tour. Verstappen's only real threat now was from his team mate, but the world champion had it covered. He lowered the top target time to 1:29.708s, leaving Perez 0.138s short - but even so, it was good enough to secure a Red Bull front row. Behind them, Leclerc was joined on the second row by Sainz.

Alonso had to settle for fifth - not quite what the pre-session hype over Aston Martin had suggested, but still impressive as it put him ahead of Russell and Hamilton. Stroll finished eighth ahead of Ocon, with Hulkenberg getting no chance to re-run his deleted push lap.

Pole sitter Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19 and team mate Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB19 in qualifying parc ferme.
04.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Qualifying Day.

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