World champion Max Verstappen has secured pole position ahead of Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez for the opening round of the Formula 1 season in Bahrain.
Verstappen improved on his own provisional pole time on his final attempt of the session to beat Perez to pole by a tenth of a second. The Red Bulls were the only cars to breach the 1’30 barrier, with the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr occupying the second row. Fernando Alonso will start fifth for Aston Martin.
The first truly competitive session of the 2023 Formula 1 season began under the lights with track temperature hovering just below 30C and slowly dropping. The two AlphaTauris of Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries were first to join the track, quickly followed by the Ferrari pair of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr.
But as Leclerc exited the final corner to begin his first qualifying lap of the season, part of a wheel arch on his SF-23 flew off along the pit straight. Leclerc immediately locked up under braking for the first corner and abandoned his run. Around a minute later, the session was red flagged to recover “several pieces of debris” on the circuit.
After a brief delay, the session restarted and all 20 cars swiftly took to the track. Tsunoda held the early top spot with the first flying lap of the season with a 1’32.124, but that was quickly beaten by the majority of the field.
Unexpectedly, it wasn’t the Aston Martin and Red Bull drivers who headed the times at this early stage. After each driver had set their first representative laps, Sainz was quickest for Ferrari, just over half a tenth ahead of George Russell’s Mercedes and Leclerc third in the second Ferrari.
Lance Stroll’s first lap time was deleted for breaching track limits at turn 13, dropping him to the back of the field, the only driver not to be credited with a lap time. As the field all returned to the pits after their first runs, the drop zone consisted of Nico Hulkenberg’s Haas, the two McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, Logan Sargeant’s Williams and Stroll in 20th.
As the minutes ticked down, the entire field peeled out of the pit lane for a second run, aside for Sainz on top of the times. Red Bull chose to send both Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez out on fresh soft tyres, while Mercedes, Ferrari and Aston Martin opted to stay on used softs.
Stroll successfully completed a legitimate lap time to move comfortably safe up in fifth, as did Hulkenberg on his return to Formula 1. It was not a good session for the three rookies, however, with Sargeant the first driver eliminated in 16th, with Piastri and De Vries also both knocked out in 18th and 19th, respectively.
Lando Norris squeezed through into Q2 by the narrowest possible margin, having set an identical time to Sargeant within three-thousandths of a second. But there was frustration for both Kevin Magnussen, whose session ended in 17th, and Alpine’s Pierre Gasly, who was out of the top 15 positions before having his best time deleted for exceeding track limits, dropping him to the rear of the pack in 20th.
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The fans in the grandstands were treated to a few minutes of quiet as the teams were content to remain in the garage as the second phase of qualifying began. Eventually, 14 of the 15 drivers headed out for their first runs of Q2, only Albon opting to stay in the comfort of the garage.
Red Bull again chose to use fresh tyres for their first flying lap attempts and it seemed to be an effective move as Verstappen went quickest with a 1’30.503, almost a quarter of a second faster than team mate Perez. The Mercedes of Hamilton and Russell went third and fourth after their first attempt of the session, with Alonso fifth ahead of the two Ferrari drivers.
With the track clear, Albon took advantage to make his first attempt. However, a mistake at turn six ruined his lap and he returned to the pit lane, opting not to make a second run.
It was therefore a battle to see which four drivers would also join Albon in being eliminated from the session, with Zhou Guanyu, Stroll, Ocon and Tsunoda all needing to improve if they wanted to reach the third and final phase. The Aston Martin driver was the obvious candidate to progress, Stroll having used old tyres for his first run in Q2, and having lost time when he didn’t see a late signal instructing him to stop at the weigh bridge and had to be pushed back to the pit entrance by his team.
Zhou failed to improve by enough to put himself safe, with Tsunoda also eliminated a full second behind the Alfa Romeo drivers. Ocon, however, did put in a good enough lap to reach the top ten, knocking Valtteri Bottas out in the second Alfa Romeo. That was relief for Alpine, as the other car of Gasly had gone out in Q1. The same situation played out at Haas where the returning Nico Hulkenberg reached Q3, Magnussen having gone out in the previous session.
As the chequered flag flew, only Stroll had the opportunity to move himself out of danger with his final lap. He duly did so, moving up to tenth by two tenths of a second, knocking out Norris in 11th place.
Leclerc ended the session quickest of all with a 1’30.282, making use of a fresh set of softs to lower the quickest time of the weekend heading into the all important pole position shoot-out.
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With the top ten from Q2 separated by just 0.845s, the final 12 minute battle for pole position looked set to be one of the most intense in years. The Red Bull and the Ferrari pairs were the first cars onto the track, joined by Stroll’s Aston Martin who, unlike the others, was sent out on a used set of soft tyres.
Verstappen was the first car across the line to set a benchmark time and he delivered a 1’29.897, the first time anyone had breached the 1’30 barrier all weekend. Perez could not match his team mate, almost a quarter of a second slower, while Leclerc stopped the clock at exactly 90 seconds, his 1’30.000 leaving him a tenth off the world champion. Sainz was four tenths slower after an error exiting turn seven, while Stroll was considerably off the pace on his used tyres.
As the Red Bulls and Ferraris returned to the pits, Alonso and the two Mercedes headed out for their only attempts of the session. Alonso could only manage a 1’30.336, putting him fourth behind Perez but ahead of Sainz. Mercedes also could not trouble the provisional pole sitters, with Russell going fifth and Hamilton seventh, almost half a second from Verstappen’s best.
Red Bull headed back out in the final minutes, as Alonso and the Mercedes came back in to the pits, their qualifying over. Surprisingly, Leclerc was not sent back out by Ferrari, leaving the battle for pole position as a shootout between the Red Bulls and Sainz.
Verstappen improved to a 1’29.708, lowering his own provisional pole time, but while Perez did break into the 1’29s, it was not enough to deny his team mate the first pole of the season. Sainz could only manage fourth, jumping ahead of Alonso but remaining behind team mate Leclerc.
The two Mercedes finished the session sixth and seventh, with Stroll in eighth after improving on his first run in the final moments. Ocon secured ninth on the grid for Alpine, while Hulkenberg will start tenth on his return to the F1 grid.
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