F1 Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying: Max Verstappen, Red Bull Surge to Pole Position
It’s a new season but there’s a familiar face at the front of the starting grid. Max Verstappen began his quest for a three-peat with pole position for Formula 1’s Bahrain Grand Prix. Autoweek rounds up the main talking points.
Emphatic Red Bull Qualifies 1-2
It was expected after testing that Red Bull Racing held the aces in 2023, and the first qualifying session of the year delivered on such suggestions.
Max Verstappen surged to pole position while teammate Sergio Perez slotted into second to create an all-Red Bull front row for the opening race of the season. That result was achieved despite both drivers not being fully at ease with the RB19 through until qualifying—and as such it bodes well for the team’s defense of both Drivers' and Constructors' Championships.
“I’m particularly happy because my whole weekend up to qualifying was very difficult,” said Verstappen. “I couldn’t really find the comfortable balance I had in testing, I was struggling a lot to get the car together really, and went into Q1 and everything felt a bit better, but was not perfect, so yeah very happy. Then in Q3, we could put these laps in. I still think it’s not perfect but a better direction, for sure for the next race we’ll have to analyze (why) from the test to the race it’s different for us and for me driving-wise.
“We are sitting here with two cars, coming off last year, this is a very strong start for us, so I’m happy for that.”
Verstappen added that “normally [the race] should be our stronger point [compared to] the one-lap pace so hopefully we can show that again tomorrow.”
Second-placed Perez echoed Verstappen’s sentiments on Red Bull’s situation.
“We found quite a different car to what we had in testing,” said Perez. “We don’t understand it, [maybe it is] wind, temperature, many variances. Maybe after the weekend we will have a bit more of an idea but for now we’ll focus on tomorrow.”
Red Bull enters Sunday’s Grand Prix as the firm favorite.
Aston Martin Hype Fades
Aston Martin stole the show on Friday though pacesetter Fernando Alonso swiftly played down his prospects of fighting for pole position. That proved pertinent but the AMR23 was still in the mix for much of qualifying.
Aston Martin wound up as the third-best team in qualifying, with Alonso fifth, only 0.6 second off pole position. That represents a sizeable year-on-year improvement for a team that spent last season marooned in the midfield.
“It was amazing,” said Alonso. “The whole weekend has been unreal for us. It was like too good to be true, every session and every performance of the car. In qualifying our expectation was to be around half of a second from Red Bull... I think we are half a second or sixth-tenths from Red Bull. So it was quite right. I don’t know what to say because eight months ago the project was just a bet but now to be at race one with a completely new car, which I think we still need to unlock a lot of potential to be in the top five, fighting with Ferrari and Mercedes, it seems a little bit unreal. But we’ll take it for sure.”
Alonso believes Aston Martin can legitimately fight for a podium on Sunday.
“We thought to be honest that the first three teams were untouchable this year with the advantage they had last year,” he said. “Maybe [the aim would be to] try to lead the midfield or mix in the midfield... now we are saying we start P5 and maybe we fight with the Ferraris for the podium. This is just incredible. Let’s keep working, keep feet on the ground and execute the race in the best way possible, no mistakes, good start, good pit stops, let’s see where we are. But yeah, right now we are living a dream.”
A slightly banged up Lance Stroll, who revealed he also suffered a broken toe in the pre-testing cycling accident that injured his wrists, was eighth in the sister car.
Ferrari Takes the Second Row
Ferrari was more in the mix than it expected, locking out the second row, with Charles Leclerc labelling the result “a good surprise” for last year’s Bahrain GP victors.
Leclerc only ran one lap in Q3 as Ferrari opted to save a set of tires for the race—indicating that it is slightly less confident in its race pace and consequent tire degradation over an elongated stint. “They are very quick,” said Leclerc of Red Bull’s race simulation, while also highlighting Aston Martin’s speed.
Why the SF-23 was a more competitive proposition is something Ferrari still needs to get its heads around.
“We need to look into that and as much as we need to understand the bad days we also need to understand the good days as that’s how we will improve,” said Leclerc.
Carlos Sainz, who was fourth, was encouraged by Ferrari’s one-lap pace – especially after a tricky Friday—though was similarly cautious over the SF-23’s Sunday prospects.
“I think Red Bull will be very strong tomorrow,” said Sainz. “If in qualifying they are one step [ahead], in race pace, it looks like they’re one and a half steps [ahead]. We will see. We’ll try everything we can to challenge them, you need to race them, there can always be safety cars and things going on that are different.”
Mixed Results for Mercedes
Mercedes qualified in sixth and seventh respectively, with Lewis Hamilton ahead of George Russell. That was better than it appeared on Friday but still a subdued result for a team accustomed to steamrolling the opposition.
“I thought it’d be worse than that, so it’s positive,” said Hamilton. “I thought we’d struggle to get into Q3 but we didn’t, we’re in there, and amongst the fight.”
Russell explained that “we expected to add a bit of performance overnight but the performance we added probably exceeded expectations,” reckoning “we probably expected to find a tenth, and we found five or six tenths, so we need to understand why that is.”
That is likely to put Mercedes in the mix for a podium judging by the anticipated race pace of the Ferraris and Alonso’s Aston Martin.
Team boss Toto Wolff was nonetheless pragmatic over Mercedes’ 2023 prospects and suggested a championship tilt is not in the picture—and that bigger changes are needed.
“I don’t know what is going to happen this year, we may find a silver bullet next week and unlock five-tenths in the car,” he said. “I haven’t seen any silver bullets before. But you never know. But definitely mid-term and long-term, we just need to have a car that is able to make us fight for an eighth championship.”
Mercedes has already hinted several times this year that its aerodynamic concept is going to change and Wolff confirmed that it cannot continue long-term with its current philosophy.
“I don’t think this package is going to be competitive eventually,” Wolff said. “We gave it our best go over the winter and now we need to regroup, sit down with the engineers, who are totally not dogmatic about anything, and decide what is the development direction that we want to pursue in order to be competitive to win races. We hit our (development) targets. We hit our targets and that’s why we gave it our best shot. The moment comes when the stopwatch comes out and that showed us that we are not good enough and we have not got enough downforce. We have to find solutions to fix that.”
Hülkenberg Bags Top 10 in F1 Return
Nico Hülkenberg secured a spot inside the top 10 on his full-scale return to Formula 1. Hülkenberg was towards the sharp end of the midfield for much of the evening and despite an imperfect Q3—having his sole push lap deleted due to track limits—he was still in the top half of the grid.
“It wasn’t perfect in Q3 unfortunately, but I don’t think I’m going to let that ruin my day and my mood,” said Hülkenberg. “I think it was pretty decent. I was pretty happy how I was able to produce and deliver the laps. I think we saw already yesterday how over one lap we’re in a decent spot and quite competitive, but the real test will come tomorrow.”
Kevin Magnussen was less fortunate as he was stymied by traffic in Q1, leaving him down in 17th spot, but the team was encouraged by the VF-23’s speed.
“I think we now know what we can do this year and I think Nico did a fantastic job on his comeback,” said Haas boss Guenther Steiner. “We had two down points, Kevin going out Q1. Today was not his day but he knows what he can do and he’s upbeat about what the car is doing, so tomorrow is another day for him to score points. With Nico in Q3, we didn’t end up where we wanted to but P10 is very good for us.”
Agonizing Miss for Logan Sargeant
Logan Sargeant fared respectability during his first Formula 1 qualifying session for Williams. In an ultra-close Q1 Sargeant was just two-tenths of a second behind teammate Alex Albon but that proved the difference between the top 10 and being out in Q1.
Sargeant set a time identical to McLaren’s Lando Norris in Q1 but as he set it after the Briton he will start Sunday's race in 16th, to Norris’ 15th, and eliminated at the first hurdle. Sargeant nonetheless emerged as top rookie, with McLaren’s Oscar Piastri 18th and AlphaTauri’s Nyck de Vries 19th.
“It's a dream come true to go out and qualify in Formula 1,” said Sargeant. “We had good pace today and the team deserved to have both cars in Q2. A slight mistake in Sector 1 cost me as I struggled to find my brake point with the change of wind at Turn 1. However, we've laid a good foundation for ourselves to build off going forward. I think we had the car in a great window this evening. In terms of balance it was right where I wanted it, I just needed to put it together slightly better. It's going to be a pretty special feeling when the lights go out tomorrow. I'll try to get off the line clean, have a good first lap and build from there.”
• Alpine had mixed fortunes as Esteban Ocon qualified ninth but Pierre Gasly slumped to the rear of the 20-car grid. Gasly’s best time was deleted due to a track limits infringement but even that effort was insufficient for Q2.
“I didn’t quite feel at one with the car and that meant we were way below our true level,” said Gasly.
McLaren was braced for a difficult start to the 2023 season and qualifying affirmed such expectations. Lando Norris scraped through to Q2 before going on to take 11th, while debutant Piastri was a low-key 18th.
“It was a little bit better than I was thinking coming into the session, so we’ll take it,” said Norris, highlighting how low expectations really were for the team in papaya.
• Alfa Romeo was solidly mid-grid, with Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu an unremarkable 12th and 13th, respectively.
• Yuki Tsunoda lifted AlphaTauri into Q2, qualifying a higher-than-expected 14th, though rookie teammate Nyck de Vries failed to get the tires in the right window and was in front of only the struggling Gasly.