Verstappen’s Bahrain pole delivers relief to Red Bull and Horner

"We look good for the race and that's the most important, but we will see tomorrow. I'm confident we can have a strong race."


Max Verstappen delivered some much-needed relief for his Red Bull team on Friday when he resisted Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to claim pole position for Saturday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

The defending three-time world champion picked up where he left off last year by topping the times in a closely-contested qualifying session at the Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir.

His success, which he admitted was “a little bit unexpected” arrived after another day of speculation and pressure for team boss Christian Horner, following the anonymous leaking of a cache of alleged private messages and photographs between him and a female member of the team.

This came 24 hours after an internal investigation led by an independent London lawyer had resulted in Horner being cleared of all claims of inappropriate behaviour.

Verstappen clocked a fastest lap of one minute and 29.179 seconds to beat Leclerc by 0.228 seconds in the final seconds of the session, securing his third Bahrain pole and the 33rd of his career.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Verstappen.

“The track had a lot of grip, but with the wind over the last few days, it’s been quite tricky to get a whole lap together and it was the same in qualifying.

“In Q1 and Q2 you go a bit faster, with the track ramping up, but to really get everything out of it in Q3 was a little bit difficult. So I’m very happy to be on pole.”

‘A little bit unexpected’

He added: “To be honest, it was a little bit unexpected, but I think the car came to us and I felt happier with the whole car.”

He forecast a close race on Saturday.

“We look good for the race and that’s the most important, but we will see tomorrow. I’m confident we can have a strong race.”

Ferrari’s Leclerc missed pole by only two-tenths of a second as he finished second ahead of Mercedes’ George Russell, Carlos Sainz of Ferrari and Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.

“I’m a bit disappointed,” admitted Leclerc.

“But we had a good qualifying and this offers us a good start to the year.”

Two-time champion Fernando Alonso qualified sixth for Aston Martin, ahead of the McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri with seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton ninth for Mercedes and Nico Hulkenberg 10th for Haas.

Hamilton reflected: “It’s a lot of work to do to get past a lot of quick cars that are starting ahead of me, but I’m sure it’ll be fun.

“George’s position and the pace he showed today really highlights, and is a real testament, to the team.

“It shows just how hard everyone has worked over the winter. It’s amazing for us to have a car that we can fight with. It reignites the fire and the flame.”

‘Anonymous speculation’

Qualifying got under way with Horner, who has always categorically denied any wrongdoing, under renewed pressure despite being cleared in Red Bull’s investigation led by a London lawyer.

Horner, who turned up at the track on Thursday to oversee the start of the new season, said: “I won’t comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate, I have always denied the allegations.”

Verstappen ensured events on the track went more smoothly and he will be favourite to emulate last year’s result when he won the first of 19 races as he swept to his third title.

The session began in cool conditions as temperatures fell under the floodlights at Sakhir’s International Circuit where Bahrain’s maiden race took place 20 years ago.

The air temperature was 18, the track 21.

The first qualifying segment ended with Sainz on top as the Alpines made an early exit along with both Saubers and Williams’ Logan Sargeant.

After topping Thursday’s opening practice, Hamilton squeezed through in 15th place.

Leclerc topped the times on the second runs of Q2 and Sainz was third, sandwiching Verstappen in second, while Hamilton was fourth with a late lap.

In the final seconds of the top 10 shoot-out Verstappen improved to 1:29.179, enough to resist Leclerc by 0.228 seconds to launch his 2024 season in ominous fashion.

Exceptionally the Bahrain race and next weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are being staged on Saturdays to accommodate the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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