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F1 Sauber driver Wehrlein hits back at critics over absence

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SAKHIR, Bahrain (AP) Sauber driver Pascal Wehrlein has hit back at critics who questioned why he missed the first two races in Formula One.

Wehrlein will finally make his debut for Sauber at the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend, after Italian Antonio Giovinazzi replaced him at the season-opening Australian GP and then the China GP last weekend.

The 22-year-old German injured his back in a crash at the Race of Champions in Miami in January, sustaining hairline cracks in vertebrae and compressing some of his intervertebral discs.

But there was confusion surrounding the initial driver switch in Australia because Wehrlein competed in the first two practice sessions at Melbourne, leading to speculation.

“I don’t care too much what the others say. They didn’t know my situation,” Wehrlein said on Thursday at the Bahrain GP.

“If you don’t know what injury someone had, you shouldn’t criticize him. It’s quite simple. If it was just some muscle pain or anything else, do you think Sauber would accept me to not drive?”

Wehrlein is confident he will be fit enough to race on Sunday.

“I’ll be fine in the car. No pain, that’s the most important thing,” he said. “The track is also quite flat, not many bumps.”

Wehrlein impressed at times last year with Manor Racing during his F1 debut season, finishing 10th at the Austrian GP for the team’s only point.

Valtteri Bottas takes pole position for season-opening Austrian GP

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Valtteri Bottas upstaged Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to take pole position Saturday for the Formula One Austrian GP.

The Finnish driver edged out the world champion by 0.012 seconds to claim the top spot for the season opener at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg. He clenched his fist as he climbed out of his car and shared a hug with Hamilton.

“It’s something special when you push the car to the limit,” said Bottas, who is chasing an eighth career win. “Feels so good. It’s very impressive (from the team).”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was third, and Lando Norris gave McLaren a boost by finishing fourth. Verstappen has won the past two years here, including 2019 when he started third behind Hamilton and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

“It’s going to be interesting quite a bit warmer tomorrow and hopefully this will play to our advantage,” Verstappen said. “Today, Mercedes was on a different level, unfortunately. Last year we were also a little bit off in qualifying so I expect we will be a bit better in the race.”

Bottas had the leading time when drivers embarked on their final laps and beat his own mark before sliding off the track into the gravel.

Hamilton was chasing a record-extending 89th career pole. He was ahead but then dropped off slightly as Bottas secured a 12th career pole.

“Great job by Valtteri. It’s a great start to the season,” Hamilton said. “We show year on year that we continue to be the best team. We’re open-minded … constantly learning from each other and pushing the boundaries.”

Ferrari struggled for speed, with Leclerc nearly one second behind in seventh and Sebastian Vettel failing to make it into the third and final part of qualifying, known as Q3. He starts the race from 11th on the grid.

Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the season with his future in F1 uncertain.

Earlier, Hamilton posted the fastest time in morning practice. The 35-year-old British driver was also quickest in both sessions on Friday.

Midway through third practice, F1 newcomer Nicholas Latifi misjudged the exit of a turn and spun his Williams car into a protective tire wall.