F1: Max Verstappen seals pole for Bahrain Grand Prix as Red Bull lock out the front row

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A first qualifying session of the Formula One season that, in its build-up, briefly threatened to put a 41-year-old on pole ended with Red Bull locking out the front row of the grid. And with it, the potential cracks for Max Verstappen and RB19, which had appeared in practice, were quickly forgotten.

The Dutchman lived up to his pre-season billing as favourite for a hat-trick of titles for the 21st pole position of his career on his father Jos’ 51st birthday just ahead of teammate Sergio Perez.

Ominously for their rivals, last season Red Bull’s race pace was much better than their qualifying. And Verstappen hinted that would likely be the case again, some predicting by as much as half-a-second a lap.

“I’m surprised to be on pole after the struggles we had in practice,” said the two-time F1 champion. “Our car is normally an incredible race car.

“It’s been a bit of a tough start to the weekend and today not finding my rhythm. We managed to put the best pieces together and I’m very happy to be on pole.”

The gap to the two Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz in third and fourth respectively wasn’t gargantuan, the former within three tenths of a second after some struggles of their own in the lead-up.

And while the old man of the grid Fernando Alonso could not threaten pole, his fifth place on the grid for Sunday’s season opener suggests Aston Martin will very much be a force to be reckoned with.

Lewis Hamilton had been damning of his Mercedes on Friday suggesting the team were on the wrong track with their approach to the W14 and this season.

In the earlier rounds of qualifying, they looked to have good pace. By the end of Q3, though, he was languishing in seventh, a place behind George Russell and six tenths behind Verstappen’s best time.

Hamilton complained of an “overall lack of downforce” while Russell sounded a more positive note. The younger Briton said: “I feel we’re in a much better position than last year. And there are some easy wins we can make aerodynamically.”

Before qualifying, Leclerc had predicted that Ferrari did not “have the performance for pole” and the signs were ominous when a piece of his wheel arch broke off early on and Q1 had to be red flagged.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When it resumed, the race against the clock was tight as Verstappen, then Alonso, then Leclerc, then Russell, then Sainz topped the timesheets in quick succession. And there were indications the grid has closed up in 2023 with barely a second separating the 20 teams on the grid in that first session.

In Q1, Verstappen could only managed seventh fastest but went purple in all three sectors to top the times in the next session. In the end, he was eclipsed by Leclerc with the two Mercedes just a fraction behind in third and fourth with Russell just ahead of his more experienced teammate.

It set up a potentially mouth-watering shoot-out for pole but, in the end, it panned out as many had predicted in the wake of a dominant winter test for Red Bull.