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.