Charles Leclerc takes pole for Bahrain GP ahead of champ Max Verstappen

Leclerc Ferrari Bahrain pole
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SAKHIR, Bahrain — Charles Leclerc of Ferrari stunned Formula One series champion Max Verstappen by taking a brilliant pole position Saturday for the season-opening F1 Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.015 seconds ahead of Leclerc on the last time split but the Red Bull star lost time to finish 0.123 seconds behind as his old teenage karting rival clinched the 10th pole position of his career.

“It was just a bit hit-and-miss getting the balance together,” said Verstappen, who had been fast in practice. “Suddenly I lost a 10th (of a second) on a corner. Nevertheless it’s the first race of the season and we’re competitive.”

It is the same track where the 24-year-old Leclerc from Monaco got his first pole, in his first season with Ferrari in 2019, earning him a phone call from friend Prince Albert of Monaco.

“It feels good. The last two years have been difficult for the team,” Leclerc said. “We were quite hopeful this was an opportunity to be back in the front.”

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton made up ground for Mercedes on his final run but never looked like securing a record-extending 104th pole and starts from a disappointing fifth place. He is behind Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. in third.

Hamilton’s ex-teammate Valtteri Bottas made it a sore day for Mercedes by placing sixth for his new team Alfa Romeo, while his replacement George Russell was only ninth after a poor last run.

Mercedes looks to be struggling as others unexpectedly improve.

Haas uses Ferrari engines and is looking good, with the re-hired Kevin Magnussen showing it was maybe a mistake to fire him in 2020. He starts in seventh place in his comeback race after replacing the axed Russian driver Nikita Mazepin.

Ferrari set the leading times in the final part of qualifying, known as Q3, with Mercedes lagging around 1.5 seconds behind the Ferraris. But already it wasn’t looking good for Mercedes in Q1 with Russell ninth and Hamilton 10th.

It was even worse for McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, who has won eight races in his career.

The experienced Australian won the team’s only race last season but couldn’t even get into the second part of qualifying known as Q2. He starts in a dismal 18th place while teammate Lando Norris, who got four podiums last year, is not much further up in 13th.

Verstappen led Q2 from Sainz Jr. and Leclerc as Mercedes again trailed the top drivers.

“It was a good start to the new era,” Verstappen said. “It was a really close battle with Carlos and Charles.”

Earlier, Verstappen narrowly led the third and final practice ahead of Leclerc and Perez.

Verstappen posted the fastest time in all preseason testing and led second practice ahead of the Ferraris, which were also second and third in the first practice.

Mercedes expressed severe doubts about the pace of its car in testing. After Friday’s two practice runs Hamilton had already ruled out victory despite being F1’s record holder with 103 GP wins.

Hamilton has won races where he’s started from far lower than fifth, but there are doubts his car can match his driving this time.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
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Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.