Valterri Bottas took his first pole at a surprising qualifying session for the Bahrain Grand Prix.
With all the pre-race talk focusing on Hamilton and Vettel, the new Mercedes driver has now got involved in the title mix and set up an intriguing race.
Bottas narrowly ended ahead of team-mate Hamilton with Vettel taking third a huge 0.478 seconds off pole pace.
In a tight scrap behind, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo will again start from fourth on the grid beating Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen by just 0.022 seconds while Max Verstappen finished a further 0.020 seconds back.
Renault had a superb qualifying – exceeding most expectations – to have Hulkenberg in seventh and Palmer in tenth. The two Renault drivers are separated by Williams’ Felipe Massa and Haas’ Romain Grosjean.
Bottas Finally Gets Pole
In front of a dazzling night backdrop and with cooling track temperatures, Bottas secured his maiden pole by simply out-driving his competition when it mattered.
The Finn found himself behind Hamilton in Q1 and Q2 but landed a decisive counter-punch in Q3.
Hamilton was in front after the first hot laps but a messy final run opened the door for Bottas.
A messy middle section put Hamilton down by 0.2 seconds and then a mistake on the final corner dropped him further off the pace.
Bottas in turn appeared to control his drive through sector 1 but pushed hard over the final two sectors to claim his elusive pole position.
“It took a few races but got it and hopefully it’s the first of many,” said Bottas afterwards.
“I just want to say a big thank you to the team. Both starting from the front row. We really focused on the evening conditions and got a lot of lap time out of the car.”
“It’s not an easy track to get anything right. It’s quite technical. Easy to lock up and miss the apex. It is getting the lap together and it was a good enough balance for pole.”
Don’t Write Off Ferrari
Ferrari showed good pace through the practice sessions and the opening parts of qualifying only to fall behind in the crucial Q3.
But Mercedes is well known to dial up their engines during the final parts of qualifying to etch out an advantage so the actual difference in the cars won’t be near the 0.478 second gap between Bottas and Vettel.
The upside for Ferrari is that they tend to get more life out of the tyres during warmer conditions. The track temperature in Bahrain is expected to hover around 31 degrees Celsius and with pit strategy already proving to be important this season there is plenty of reason for Ferrari to be optimisitic.
“Overall, it has been a good day,” explained Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
“Yesterday I couldn’t get the right feeling, I kept sliding too much.”
“But in qualifying, after seeing what the gap was at the end of my first run in Q3, I wasn’t so happy, so I tried it all and maybe pushed a bit too much. This is a circuit where you can easily overshoot it. Today, we were losing a bit everywhere around the lap, perhaps more than usual down the straights.”
“But tomorrow it should be closer, and hopefully we’ll have a tight race. The car feels good for Sunday.”
It’s A Mess At Mclaren
While Renault turned in a strong performance putting both drivers in the top 10, the news was not so good, again, in the McLaren pit.
Stoffel Vandoorne had a wretched time during the practice sessions being forced to replace two MGU-H’s – the part that recovers energy from the turbo – and in qualifying he could not make it out of Q1.
The situation was just as bad for Alonso. The Spaniard was in the middle of a strong lap in Q2 before suffering an engine failure. It turned out to also be another MGU-H failure that also sent debris into the internal combustion engine.
Honda motorsport chief Yusuke Hasegawa said they do not yet fully understand the exact cause of the failures.
“We’re not sure why it happened just here three times, but we are suspecting something happened in this environment.”
“Possibly because the temperatures are very high.”
Alonso was far from complimentary when asked after qualifying about the Honda engine.
“There is no point for us talking driveability,” said Alonso.
“We cannot complete a lap or do qualifying.”
“I don’t care too much about the driveability if I cannot finish a race so far this year, or if I cannot finish qualifying now.”