Free Practice sessions one and two have seen an eyebrow raised in the Mercedes-AMG camp, as both Ferraris, in the hands of first Charles LeClerc then Sebastian Vettel, lead the Silver Arrows. Both drivers for Mercedes also swapped places, with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton sharing the third and fourth quickest times.
Red Bull would fill positions five and six in FP1, with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg lapping quicker than Max Verstappen in FP2. Hulkenberg’s team mate, Daniel Ricciardo, was left scratching his head as he finished outside the top ten in both sessions. It would be 11th in FP1, 15th in FP2.
FP1 would see Carlos Sainz in his McLaren ahead of Hulkenberg for FP1, whilst Danil Kvyat in the Toro Rosso and Kimi Raikkonen in the Alfa Romeo team car for ninth and tenth, FP2 would not be good for the veteran Raikonnen, down in 16th. However, he did only complete six laps in FP2.
Woes continued for both George Russell and the return of Robert Kubica, with the Polish driver questioning his car’s setup. Although ostensibly identical in configuration to the young Englishman’s, Kubica would languish in both practice sessions by being up to a second slower than Russell. A mystified Kubica would say: “Here we started with the same set-up and the characteristics are still different. I just hope we are able to solve it, but we have some tests to do so we understand the reasons.”
A not entirely unhappy Hamilton said after the practice sessions: “We didn’t hold back in testing – it just so happened we improved the car for the last couple of days and the first race. I think the Ferraris were down for whatever reason, we’ve come here and made improvements to our car and now it looks like it’s the other way around.” Winner of the Melbourne race, Bottas, grinned: “Maybe I’m looking forward to tomorrow because I am looking forward to a great fight. Of course we’d like to be miles ahead, but if there’s a fight, then fighting for the pole and then getting the pole, it’s even better!”
Qualifying gets under way at 18:00 local time in Bahrain.
Ferrari continued their practice session form into Free Practice 3, leading the time sheets and locking out Mercedes. Come qualifying time and it was indeed the scarlet cars that claimed the front two rows. Charles Leclerc, in just his second race weekend with Ferrari, nudged out his more experienced team mate Sebastian Vettel to see his name in pole position for the first time.
It was deja vu all over again for positions three and four, with Lewis Hamilton to start alongside Valtteri Bottas. Both drivers posted near identical times across the three qualilfying runs, with Hamilton being a mere 6/100ths ahead of Bottas at the end of Q3.
The following six cars made for a mixed list; Max Verstappen and Red Bull would be in P5 in a not unexpected result, however P6 and P7 see Kevin Magnussen and Haas against Carlos Sainz from McLaren go toe to toe. Like Mercedes, their times were lineball through the three sessions, with Magnussen pipping Sainz also by 6/100ths.
Haas continue to improve and P8 provisionally went to Romain Grosjean, just ahead of Kimi Raikkonen from the Alfa Romeo team. A post qualifying penalty saw Grosjean back to P11. The top ten rounds out with Lando Norris and McLaren, locking out Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian was two tenths off the Norris time at the end of Q2. Toro Rosso’s new recruit Alexander Albon pops into P12, Pierre Gasly takes P13, whilst P14 is Sergio Perez from Racing Point. The bubble point of P15 went to Danil Kvyat from Toro Rosso. The surprise here is that Nico Hulkenberg, quicker in practice and a finisher in Melbourne, did not make it past Q1, with issues hitting his Renault. He would be in P17, behind Antonio Giovinazzi from Alfa Romeo.
The final three places are Lance Stroll in his Racing Point car, ahead of the pairing of George Russell and Robert Kubica from Williams.
With Leclerc taking pole position, he became the second youngest ever driver to do so, with his team mate Vettel still listed as the youngest. He is also the first Monaco born driver to sit on the fron row. The cool air in his last qualifying session would also see him lower the quickest time to 1:28.866, nearly 0.3 seconds quicker than Vettel’s.
Grosjean and Norris were lucky to get through Q1. Norris was on a hot lap and entered Turn 14 to find Grosjean on a slow run. Norris and quick reaction times worked together for the young driver to throw out the anchors and miss hitting Grosjean, with the latter paying a visit to the stewards. He was hit with a three place grid penalty as a result.
Perhaps the biggest news though was the retirement of a consistently quick Hulkenberg, with the German saying: “We unfortunately suffered a couple of issues with the car at the worst possible time during qualifying. We lost performance and there was no chance of fixing anything in a short amount of time.”
The final word goes to a delighted yet calm pole sitter, Charles Leclerc: “This first pole position brings me a lot of emotions, even if I’m trying to stay as cool as possible, as there are no points for pole position and the race is tomorrow.” That race starts at 18:10 local time on the last day of March, 2019.