2021 Bahrain GP qualifying report: Verstappen pole points to thrilling season


Lewis Hamilton has had it mostly his way for the past seven years but Max Verstappen's Bahrain Grand Prix pole suggests he faces a fight in 2021, writes Tony Dodgins

Max Verstappen after securing pole for the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

Verstappen's a good bet to dazzle again in Imola

Lars Baron/Getty Images

You don’t always get what you wish for but, in 2021, it looks like we might: a full-on world championship fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen!

Okay, it’s race one, the season’s first qualifying session, so let’s not get carried away. But the evidence looks strong.

Just four months ago, Hamilton took pole for the Bahrain GP, with Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas alongside him and Verstappen’s Red Bull third on the grid. The gap separating Max and Lewis was 0.41sec and hopes for a race centred around the Red Bull’s race performance being stronger relative to its qualifying capability. It was the basic narrative for the whole of 2020.

Fast forward to this weekend, same venue, and it is a complete reversal – Verstappen on pole with an almost identical (0.41sec) margin over Hamilton. So, a 0.8sec swing over the winter.

How so? Isn’t this a carry-over year before a radical change of regulations in 2022, with the popular perception being that the newly-knighted Hamilton merely has to show up to canter to that record-breaking eight world title?

Max Verstappen salutes as the winner of the 2020 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Abu Dhabi win last year has proved to be a springboard for 2021

Clive Mason/F1 via Getty Images

Well, not so fast. First off, there is Verstappen and Red Bull’s performance in the 2020 season-closing Abu Dhabi GP to consider. Max dominated both qualifying – a novelty – and the race. It was such a rare event that Christian Horner seemed to have forgotten all about it when he proclaimed Max’s Bahrain pole to be the team’s first since 2013!

But there was a tangible confidence at Red Bull as they headed into the winter, having made a step with the car. Not much was said about it last year but, in Bahrain, Horner has alluded to a correlation issue with the RB16 that the team now better understands.

That’s the first thing. Then, there’s the downforce-robbing changes to the rear diffuser area for 2021. As Mercedes technical director James Allison says, when you trim that area of the car, you haemorrhage downforce.

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But, it’s the same for everyone, right? Well, maybe not. A theory gathering purchase is that the diffuser modifications have hurt the low-rake cars more than their high-rake counterparts. Low-rake cars, like the Mercedes and last year’s Racing Point run fairly flat when viewed in profile, while high-rake cars such as the Red Bull and AlphaTauri, have the appearance of a jacked-up rear end.

Toto Wolff is among those who think that the rule change – ostensibly to aid Pirelli with the heaviest, most powerful F1 cars ever running on its revised construction tyres – was actually also intended to level the F1 playing field.

“I’m sure it has been specifically designed to change the pecking order,” he said. “We know that for a low-rake car it’s more of a challenge, but we embrace it.”

They have little choice because it’s a matter of car concept, not simply a question of altering rake level.

“It’s physically not possible,” Wolff said. “We couldn’t run our suspensions and settings in the way that Red Bull does, so we need to make the best out of it and tune the car to what we have available.”

From the start of testing, both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have found the Mercedes tricky to balance. The more they run it, the more they will learn, but at the moment it’s a handful. Quick, but tricky.

Testing suggested a shift in the balance of F1 power. But testing being what it is, nobody quite knew. Now, the first qualifying session of the new season appears to have confirmed it.

Horner though, was keeping his feet on the ground: “It’s the first time that the fuel comes out and the engine modes go up, so it’s good to see, but in Q2 Mercedes seemed to have the advantage on the medium tyre even if Max was strong on the softs. People have been writing Mercedes off these past couple of weeks, but they’re right there.”

His definition of “right there” might not quite square with Hamilton’s. Lewis reckoned he’d left nothing on the table with his second Q2 run, while Horner estimated that a slight off by Max at Turn Two in Q1 had damaged the underfloor and robbed him of perhaps a tenth for the rest of the session. So, Lewis was looking at a full half-second. And that’s without factoring in that a better-balanced Red Bull is likely to look after the tyres better over a race distance.

Lewis Hamilton after qualifying second for the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

Hamilton was behind in qualifying and faces an uphill battle in the race

Mario Renzi/F1 via Getty Images

Bottas qualified third, a fairly typical two tenths down on the seven-time champion. He had to be fairly satisfied with that from a Friday baseline when he labelled the car ‘undriveable’ and proved the point by having four successive laps deleted for abuse of track limits at Turn Four.

“I did a second run in Q1 and so had just the one Q3 run,” he explained, “and it’s hard to take on Max and Lewis from there. But we’ve got two cars in the mix, which should allow us to put the pressure on Max.”

It was for that very reason – the need to have two ultra-competitive cars up front – that persuaded Red Bull to go for Sergio Perez in place of Alexander Albon, when F1’s young up and comers proved incapable of getting much closer to Verstappen than half a second over a single lap.

Ironically, qualifying has never been Perez’s strongest suit but he is an excellent racer who can both overtake and maximise tyre life. But he could do without starting his first race for his new team, in potentially the fastest car on the grid, from 11th.

On the surface then, a bit of a flop debut. But look beneath the surface and perhaps, more accurately, it’s the result of a failed team gamble that was asking a lot of him.

Sparks fly from Sergio Perez Red Bull in qualifying for the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

Perez, on medium tyres, couldn’t escape Q2

Frederich Le Floc'h/DPPI

The idea, of course, was to maximise race strategic flexibility by clearing Q2 on the harder Medium Pirelli. Verstappen’s Q2 time was 1min 30.318sec and it was seventh quickest. Sergio was 0.34sec slower, 10th, when Lance Stroll pipped him by 0.03sec to bump the second Red Bull out of Q3. On average, the qualifying deficit of Gasly/Albon versus Verstappen was bigger than that, so although Perez was hugely disappointed, perhaps he shouldn’t beat himself up too badly. He will still be a factor in the race.

Charles Leclerc drove one of those qualifying laps that very few men can to put the first Ferrari fourth on the grid. And it was something of a bolt from the blue.

“I was struggling in P2 and P3, quite honestly,” he admitted. “I was overdoing it and not driving very well in general. But then in qualifying the feeling was much better and the car felt easier to drive than last year’s. I could feel a bit more power too, so I’d say we’ve made a significant step but let’s keep our feet on the ground.”

He missed Bottas by less than a tenth and you feel he’d have signed up for a three-tenth gap to Mercedes, it’s just a shame about the Red Bull…

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For much of practice, it actually looked as if new Ferrari recruit Carlos Sainz was going to be the Maranello standard-bearer. The Spaniard and Leclerc topped Q2 on softs as Red Bull, Mercedes, McLaren and AlphaTauri all ran mediums, but in the final analysis Sainz, normally separated from team-mate of the past two years, Lando Norris, by the proverbial gnat’s whisker, was left to contemplate eighth place and more than a half-second deficit to Leclerc.

Get ready for some hugely entertaining performances from AlphaTauri. The testing pace is real and, unbelievably, F1 debutant Yuki Tsunoda split Verstappen and Hamilton in Q1! The fairytale ended with a scrappy Q2 lap that left the Japanese Honda protege 13th, but Pierre Gasly, who can boast a fourth place at Sakhir in 2018, lines up fifth having made it through Q2 on the Medium tyre just a couple of tenths slower than Verstappen. Gasly did what Perez could not.

“We knew it was a big risk,” the smiling Frenchman admitted, “but the reward can also be big.”

A tenth of a second slower, Daniel Ricciardo begins his McLaren career sixth on the grid. The ‘honey badger’ maintained his record of never being outqualified by a team-mate in Bahrain by going 0.05sec quicker than Norris.

Fernando Alonso during qualifying for the 2021 F1 Bahrain Grand Prix

Back where he left off: Alonso reached Q3 while team-mate Ocon was knocked out in Q1

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Broken jaw, unwieldy airbox, whatever, Fernando Alonso was always going to give it his all on his Alpine debut and while Esteban Ocon was disappointed to go out in Q1, badly affected by yellow flags for a spun Nikita Mazepin, Alonso hauled his car into Q3 and lines up just three-hundredths behind Sainz’s Ferrari. He will start on softs though and have to fight off potentially quicker cars in the hands of Perez and Tsunoda if he is to achieve his aim of scoring points. Only a fool would bet against him.

If Aston Martin was supposed to be a fresh dawn for Sebastian Vettel, at the moment it looks more like the same old long, tiring day. His testing was badly compromised, he is yet to feel at one with the car and he was also knobbled by the Mazepin yellows. It can only get better.

The race? If you sometimes fancy Verstappen when he starts four-tenths back, you’ve got to fancy him when he’s starting four-tenths ahead! But it will be fascinating to watch Hamilton when he needs to get his elbows out. Pretty much an alien concept for Lewis over the past six years.