Bahrain GP: Max Verstappen beats Lewis Hamilton to first pole of F1 2021 in epic head-to-head start
F1 finally gets its long-awaited duel as Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton go head to head for pole position at season-opener, with Red Bull challenger ahead; But Sergio Perez misses Q3, while Vettel knocked out in Q1; Watch Sunday's race live on Sky Sports F1 at 4pm
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 27/03/21 11:14pm
Max Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton to the first pole position of the 2021 season as Bahrain GP qualifying delivered the head-to-head duel between the grid's two biggest names that the sport has long been waiting for.
After two weeks of guessing games about the true pecking order at the start of the season after Red Bull topped testing, Verstappen delivered on the team's promise to end world champions Mercedes' seven-year run of pole positions at F1's season-opening round.
Less than a tenth of a second separated Verstappen and Hamilton after the first laps of Q3 but the Dutchman pulled clear by an impressive 0.388s margin with a brilliant final lap of 1:28.997.
"Congratulations to Max, he did such a great job. He was so fast on that last lap," said a gracious Hamilton, who is aiming for a record eighth world championship title this year.
- How the full grid lines up at Bahrain GP
- When to watch Sunday's Bahrain GP live on Sky Sports
- The A to Z of Formula 1 2021
A delighted Verstappen, who also claimed the final pole and win of last season in Abu Dhabi, said: "There are no guarantees coming to the first race weekend but the whole week so far the car has been working really well and it's just been really enjoyable to drive."
Valtteri Bottas took third in the second Mercedes but Red Bull suffered unexpected disappointment with their other car as new signing Sergio Perez surprisingly dropped out in Q2 in 11th.
Perez, the race winner for Racing Point on F1's last visit to Bahrain in December, has replaced the lesser experienced Alex Albon in Red Bull's line-up and is expected to prove a more consistent front-running foil to Verstappen. But the Mexican lost out in Q2 running on the slower medium tyres while others made headway on the quicker soft compound.
One of those to profit in Q2 was Charles Leclerc and the Monegasque went on to take an impressive fourth for a much-improved Ferrari, just ahead long-time friend Pierre Gasly who showed strong speed throughout for a rapid AlphaTauri.
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McLaren were sixth and seventh, with new signing Daniel Ricciardo just pipping Lando Norris to Saturday honours in their first head-to-head as team-mates.
Fernando Alonso made Q3 on his F1 return for Alpine, qualifying a strong ninth, but fellow ex-champion Sebastian Vettel was a shock Q1 casualty on his Aston Martin debut after being caught up with yellow flags.
Vettel will start from 18th, ahead of only the two Haas cars where Mick Schumacher outqualified Mazepin, who spun twice, on their respective F1 debuts.
Sunday's race starts at 4pm live only on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event, with build-up from 2.30pm.
Bahrain GP Qualifying top 10
1. Max Verstappen, Red Bull
2. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
3. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes
4. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
5. Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri
6. Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren
7. Lando Norris, McLaren
8. Carlos Sainz, Ferrari
9. Fernando Alonso, Alpine
10. Lance Stroll, Aston Martin
Game on: Red Bull take on Mercedes from the off
Since sweeping all before them in F1's previous rules era of 2010-13, Red Bull have played second or third fiddle to Mercedes with slow starts to seasons consistently leaving them out of title contention by mid-year.
But 2021 has already started differently.
The new RB16B was the quickest car in testing, which also took place in Bahrain, and had appeared the class act in Verstappen's hands all through practice this weekend.
Mercedes had clearly made improvements to their W12 in the fortnight since testing but believed their rivals held a clear pace edge.
Verstappen had dominated final practice in day-time desert conditions but the gap to Hamilton closed under the evening floodlights. The Red Bull was a tenth quicker in Q1 - although picked up floor damage after running wide over a kerb - slower in Q2, and then just 0.023s separated Verstappen and Hamilton after the first runs in the decisive pole shootout.
But the final laps fell decisively in the Dutchman's favour for just his fourth career pole.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner told Sky F1: "You never really know where you are. [Qualifying] was the first test of the year where the fuel comes out, the engine modes go up and you see where you are. You can see it's nip and tuck.
"The middle session it looked liked Mercedes had the advantage on the medium [tyre] but Max came back at the end there on the softs. Maybe Lewis underdelivered slightly on his last lap, but it's fantastic for us...that's our first pole [at the first race] since 2013 and Honda's first for 30 years.
"But Mercedes are right there and going to be right there in the race."
Bahrain GP Qualifying Timesheet
|1) Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1:28.997|
|2) Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||+0.388|
|3) Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||+0.589|
|4) Charles Leclerc||Ferrari||+0.681|
|5) Pierre Gasly||AlphaTauri||+0.812|
|6) Daniel Ricciardo||McLaren||+0.930|
|7) Lando Norris||McLaren||+0.977|
|8) Carlos Sainz||Ferrari||+1.218|
|9) Fernando Alonso||Alpine||+1.252|
|10) Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||+1.604|
|Knocked out in Q2|
|11) Sergio Perez||Red Bull||1:30.659|
|12) Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||1:30.708|
|13) Yuki Tsunoda||AlphaTauri||1:31.203|
|14) Kimi Raikkonen||Alfa Romeo||1:31.238|
|15) George Russell||Williams||1:33.430|
|Knocked out in Q1|
|16) Esteban Ocon||Alpine||1:31.724|
|17) Nicholas Latifi||Williams||1:31.936|
|18) Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||1:32.056|
|19) Mick Schumacher||Haas||1:32.449|
|20) Nikita Mazepin||Haas||1:33.273|