Sebastian Vettel will make his 200th Grand Prix start for the Bahrain Grand Prix on pole position ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen, as Ferrari dominate with their first front row lock out at the circuit since 2006.
Although Raikkonen had been the faster of the two Ferrari’s in all three practice sessions, it was Vettel who pulled to performance out of the car when it was needed to line up on pole position for the race ahead of his Finnish team mate.
The German had it all to do in the final run of Q3 however after running wide on his first flying lap, which cost him the time he needed to beat Raikkonen on provisional pole. With the pressure on to perform Vettel pulled out, according to his own words a “lions lap”, to take the front grid spot for the race. The Ferrari driver made no mistake on his second and final attempt as he secured his 51st pole position of his F1 career by just over a tenth of a second from Raikkonen and Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.
“The car came alive. I think it’s surprising for us after Australia to be that competitive. I was very happy with both laps in the end, and very happy with the result and the way the car was handling and responding,” Vettel said to the media afterwards before he added. “I’m chuffed.”
Raikkonen should not be disappointed however with second position, as the statistics are in his favour for taking victory tomorrow. Since the inception of the race there have only been five occasions when the pole position driver has converted the advantage of the coveted grid spot into a race victory.
Bottas will line up third for the race, after what many feel can be described as a disappointing session for Mercedes. While the team are a lot closer to Ferrari than they have been during any of the practice session this weekend, their baffling lack of pace here compared to Australia has left many to wonder what is going on.
“We don’t have the pace we were expecting coming here,” admitted Bottas. “We need to understand why. We are struggling with overheating with the tyres, but we have work to do. Like we’ve been saying through the beginning of the season, we’re not miles ahead, and this weekend so far the Ferrari has been the quickest car. We still have tomorrow to see how the pace is.”
His team mate Lewis Hamilton qualified fourth, but has been hit with a grid penalty due to an unscheduled gearbox change. As a result of his demotion down the grid, Hamilton will line up ninth for a race that has not ever been won from outside of the top four. There is a slight glimmer of hope though for Hamilton, who will start the Grand Prix on the slower but more durable soft tyres in a bid to outmanoeuvre Ferrari and Red Bull.
“It’s not going to be the easiest tomorrow that’s for sure,” Hamilton told the media after. “I’ve got the softer tyre so I should be able to go longer. There are a couple of different strategies tomorrow so I will try and eek out every last bit of power and strength from this car.”
Meanwhile it was a mixed session for Red Bull, with Daniel Ricciardo qualifying fifth, in a Red Bull car which is expected to perform strongly in race conditions. The RB14 has shown impressive long run pace throughout the weekend, and has proven to many that it may well be a threat to the Mercedes and Ferrari charge tomorrow. Especially as Mercedes seem off the pace this weekend, while Ferrari have been stronger on a single lap pace rather than long run pace like Red Bull.
The team did not have it all their own way though, as Ricciardo’s team mate Max Verstappen crashed out at the beginning of Q1 and will line up no higher than 15th on the grid. The Dutchman looked ready to challenge for a top position in qualifying, having but in a time good enough to get through to Q2. But during a second high-speed lap to help sort out some engine settings, he ran across the kerbs at Turn 2. This caused the back end of his RB14 stepped out and he spun across the track, hitting the barriers on the outside of the circuit.
Luckily for Verstappen much of the damage seems superficial to the suspension and nose rather than the chassis. And the team were confident he shouldn’t get a grid penalty. After getting back to the garage and having a chance to study the data, Verstappen put the accident down to a power surge on his engine.
“It was unfortunate,” said Verstappen. “I studied the data and suddenly we had a 150 horsepower increase which is a bit odd because the corner is not flat out so you are just juggling the throttle. It was like an on and off switch and suddenly span the rear tyres up quite aggressively and I spun. I didn’t expect it at all. 150 horsepower when you think you are on the limit is quite a lot.”
By far one of the biggest stories of qualifying though was Pierre Gasly, who managed to drive a fantastic lap in order to put his Honda powered Toro Rosso in sixth positions, which will become fifth on the grid after Hamilton’s penalty is applied.
“My best qualifying in Formula 1!” Gasly said after the session. “It’s been an amazing day. The team has been working very hard since the beginning of the weekend and it’s good to see this effort repaid. I felt really good in the car so I’m very happy.”
His team mate Brendon Hartley, who just missed out on Q3 by just a tenth of a second, said a new aero package was responsible for the performance increase, and that the gains actually caught Toro Rosso by surprise.
“The fact we’ve brought so much performance is really, really encouraging,” Hartley said. “I think the estimate from Toro Rosso of the performance from the upgrade was quite small – and it ended up being a lot larger than they estimated, which is also fantastic. It’s normally the other way.”
The Haas of Kevin Magnussen carried on their fine form from Australia by qualifying seventh, just 29 thousandths of a second slower than the Toro Rosso ahead of him in one of the tightest midfield battles we’ve seen in a long time. Unfortunately his team mate Romain Grosjean failed to make it through Q1, after a mistake on his final timed lap. To add insult to injury he managed the same time as Fernando Alonso in 15th place, but since Alonso set the time first, he was deemed to be given track position and was advanced into Q2.
The Renault of Nico Hulkenberg will line up in eighth place and Carlos Sainz in the sister Renault will start from tenth, with the Force India of Esteban Ocon in ninth splitting the two.
Outside of the top ten it was an embarrassing day for McLaren in front of one of their major shareholders, the Bahraini royal family. The team had started the week talking about catching the frontrunners with their significant updates they’d brought to the circuit. But they ended qualifying trying to explain how neither of their cars reached Q3. Alonso qualified 13th ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne in 14th position.
Even more humiliating for the Woking based team, Both Honda powered Toro Rosso’s will start ahead of them.
“I’m astonished,” admitted McLaren chief Eric Boullier. “There is need for a big investigation. We need to find out what is going on.”
McLaren are not the only fallen British superpower to be struggling in Bahrain. Williams had their worst qualifying session since the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, with both Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll failing to make it out of Q1. Previously there had been only one case of a Williams failing to make it out of Q1 in Bahrain, as this is a track traditionally they have gone well at in the past. They line up 18th and 20th respectively for the race.
With Red Bull having strong race pace, and out of place Hamilton and Verstappen needing to fight their way through the field, and squabbling Ferrari’s, the Bahrain Grand Prix really is shaping up to be another classic duel in the desert.
Bahrain GP Qualifying Timesheet
1) Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari: 1:27.958
2) Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari: + 0.143
3) Valtteri Bottas. Mercedes: + 0.166
4) Lewis Hamilton , Mercedes: + 0.262 (Five place grid penalty to be added for gearbox change)
5) Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull: + 0.440
6) Pierre Gasly, Toro Rosso: + 1.371
7) Kevin Magnussen, Haas: + 1.400
8) Nico Hulkenberg, Renault: + 1.612
9) Esteban Ocon, Force India: + 1.916
10) Carlos Sainz, Renault: + 2.028
Out in Q2
11) Brendon Hartley, Toro Rosso: 1:30.105
12) Sergio Perez, Force India: 1:30.156
13) Fernando Alonso, McLaren: 1:30.212
14) Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren: 1:30.525
15) Max Verstappen, Red Bull: No time set
Out in Q1
16) Romain Grosjean, Haas: 1:30.530
17) Marcus Ericsson, Sauber: 1:31.063
18) Sergey Sirotkin, Williams: 1:31.414
19) Charles Leclerc, Sauber: 1:31.420
20) Lance Stroll, Williams: 1:31.503