BAHRAIN — Max Verstappen woke from what appeared a somnolent weekend to shatter the Fernando Alonso dream sequence and deliver the result promised in pre-season testing, a 21st career pole. Team-mate Sergio Perez followed dutifully a tenth behind to lock out a Red Bull front row for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen has yet to win in Bahrain and struggled to find a compliant set-up in practice. Patience proved his friend in the end and none here is looking much beyond a dominant start to the season by the defending champion.

The darling of the opening two days, Alonso was proven right in warning not to read too much into his table-topping times in second and third practice. He was however quick enough to follow the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz into fifth in an encouragingly-close qualifying session, a smidgeon ahead of the Mercedes pair George Russell and Lewis Hamilton.

Just one hundredth of a second separated Alonso and Russell with Hamilton a further five hundredths adrift in seventh. Take Alonso out of it and 2023 will start pretty much as 2022 finished, with Verstappen and Red Bull the combination to beat and Ferrari edging Mercedes in pursuit.

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“It’s been a bit of a tough start to the weekend but in qualifying we managed to put the best pieces together and of course very happy to be on pole,” Verstappen said. “Compared to last year everyone knows a bit more what they are doing with the car. Everyone is increasing their performances a lot.”

The first sign of a Red Bull bicep flex came in Q2 when Verstappen went four tenths quicker on his first run, rapidly followed by Perez two tenths behind. This was the moment for which we had been waiting, confirmation of Red Bull’s eminence.

Verstappen had struggled with balance all weekend, but when he found his rhythm moved smoothly to the head of the field. This is he did with the minimum of fuss to further underline the scale of the task facing the chasing pack. Red Bull’s race pace has the potential to crush the most optimistic soul, as Ferrari’s third-placed Leclerc observed.

Bahrain starting grid and how to watch

  • 1) Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
  • 2) Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
  • 3) Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
  • 4) Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)
  • 5) Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin)
  • 6) George Russell (Mercedes)
  • 7) Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
  • 8) Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
  • 9) Esteban Ocon (Alpine)
  • 10) Nico Hulkenberg (Haas)
  • 11) Lando Norris (McLaren)
  • 12) Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo)
  • 13) Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo)
  • 14) Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri)
  • 15) Alex Albon (Williams)
  • 16) Logan Sargeant (Williams)
  • 17) Pierre Gasly (Alpine)
  • 18) Kevin Magnussen (Haas)
  • 19) Oscar Piastri (McLaren)
  • 20) Nyck De Vries (AlphaTauri)

TV: Sky Sports holds the right to broadcast all F1 races live in the UK, while Channel 4 shows highlights of both qualifying and the race later in the day.

Live stream: Watch it live on NOW. You can purchase a one-off day pass for £11.99 or a monthly pass, currently £21.

Sunday schedule:

  • Race: 3pm on Sunday 5 March, Sky Sports F1 from 1.30pm
  • Highlights: Channel 4 will show qualifying highlights at 7.30pm on Saturday and race highlights at 9pm on Sunday

“We managed to find the pace, however we need to keep in mind that for the race run we seem to be a little bit on the back foot to Red Bull,” he said. “It was very close. Aston Martin was very quick, Mercedes was very quick. In the race run we have a bit of weakness for now.”

Hamilton finished half a second off the pace, which is at least an improvement on last year when he began the season a second slower than Red Bull. Though Mercedes gave the impression of contending the outcome reinforced Hamilton’s view that a pivot in thinking is required if the team is close the gap.

“Woke up this morning thinking we would be a lot further behind so getting to Q3 was great. When we got to qualifying the car just didn’t feel alive. It felt really average,” he said. “The direction I am going with my set-up I’m hoping works better for tomorrow but it made it a bit difficult for qualifying. It is not an impossible mountain to climb. We’ve just got to focus.”

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