Leclerc claims pole for Bahrain GP as Hamilton and Mercedes struggle | Formula One

Formula One had been optimistic for a reinvigorated fight at the front in its new era of cars and, in the form of qualifying for the season-opener in Bahrain, they can be satisfied their plans have delivered the goods in this opening foray.

With Charles Leclerc and Ferrari claiming a thrilling pole position in front of the reigning champion, Max Verstappen, qualifying heralded a potential dogfight this season between three manufacturers at the front of the field. It is a scrap most notable for it being Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in the unusual position of playing catch-up to their rivals Red Bull and the resurgent Ferrari. The Scuderia are delivering on their pre-season promise with Carlos Sainz claiming third place.

For the sport’s previously dominating team, qualifying was a sobering experience. Mercedes are flooding and there is no quick fix in sight. For eight consecutive years the constructors’ champions, this is the hardest start they have endured since 2013. Hamilton was in fifth place, a full six-tenths down on Leclerc, with his teammate George Russell in ninth.

Hamilton, the seven-times world champion, pulled no punches in his assessment. “Those guys ahead of us are in another league,” he said. “I’m generally really happy today. Given how we’ve been the last few weeks and the problems we’ve had with the car, it’s a bit of a nightmare to drive.”

North did he expect any great turnaround in race pace. “Those guys will be going away,” he said “We’re not in the fight with those guys. My battle is with the guys behind most likely.”

The problems facing Mercedes will not be solved overnight. Their car is suffering from what is known as porpoising, bouncing induced by a break in downforce on straights. If Hamilton is to earn an eighth title he will have to do it the hard way.

Lewis Hamilton could only manage fifth on the grid as his Mercedes car struggled with a porpoising problem.
Lewis Hamilton could only manage fifth on the grid as his Mercedes car struggled with a porpoising problem. Photograph: Ali Haider/EPA

For Ferrari, who have not challenged toward the front since 2019, having completely shifted their focus last year to the 2022 model built to the all-new regulations, their plan has paid off in spades.

“It was not easy after 2019 to do a step down and not be fighting for positions but we reacted in the best way possible,” said Leclerc. “We had a good feeling with the car. To finally show it for real in qualifying feels extremely good but we cannot relax on this. Red Bull will develop, we need to keep pushing.”

Certainly Red Bull are right on their tail and on another day Verstappen, who was a tenth back, might have had the edge. A nip and tuck fight between the two teams can be expected in the race on Sunday. Leclerc and Verstappen, both elbows-out drivers, are likely to be uncompromising with one another into turn one.

On the first truly competitive run for these brand new cars, unleashed on low fuel and with their engines turned up, Leclerc held a slender advantage. For the final decisive laps in Q3 he was hooked up and put in an almighty lap with a time of 1min 30.558sec.

Much as Verstappen attacked, he could not match it. A jubilant Leclerc reveled in what he had felt was the real potential of his car, but noted ominously that he felt there was more to come.

It is Leclerc’s 10th pole position and Ferrari’s first since he took the top spot in Baku last year. The Monegasque driver is in every position to try to convert it with good form at the Bahrain International Circuit. He took pole here in 2019 and was leading comfortably only to lose a likely win owing to a problem with his energy recovery unit.

For F1, then, a sigh of relief at the top that their grand gamble on the new regulations has at least not delivered the feared utter dominance of a single team. Instead there is the promise of a competition only becoming more fierce, a gauntlet laid down by Ferrari, challenge accepted by Red Bull, with Mercedes working furiously to join the fray.

Sergio Pérez was in fourth for Red Bull with Valtteri Bottas in sixth for Alfa Romeo. Kevin Magnussen back with Haas was an impressive seventh, with Fernando Alonso in eighth for Alpine. Pierre Gasly was in 10th for AlphaTauri.

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Esteban Ocon was in 11th for Alpine and Mick Schumacher in 12th for Haas. Lando Norris was 13th for McLaren while Alex Albon made a good return to F1 with Williams, finishing in 14th place. Guanyu Zhou, the first Chinese driver in F1, was in 14th for Alfa Romeo.

Yuki Tsunoda went out in 16th for AlphaTauri, with the two Aston Martins of Nico Hülkenberg and Lance Stroll in 17th and 19th. Daniel Ricciardo was a disappointing 18th for McLaren and Nicholas Latifi was 20th for Williams.

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