The Free Practice sessions in Bahrain the last two days have seen Ferrari in a commanding manner which is hardly surprising seeing how the prancing horse has won at Bahrain for the last two years with Sebastian Vettel behind the wheel. Meanwhile, Valtteri Bottas has never been out qualified by his teammate in Bahrain…and with the form Bottas was in he was hoping for that to continue.
To begin qualifying, the early choice of tyre was the soft compound and Robert Kubica looked like being the first to record a time and create a bit of history on top of the timing screen…until he dove into the pits and so that honour went to Alex Albon in the Toro Rosso with a 1.31.125. Not long after, Lando Norris shot to the top of the timing screen but was very fortunate not to make contact with the rear of Romain Grosjean’s Haas on the last corner – the Frenchman was going very slowly and without Norris’ quick reaction an accident was certainly on the cards. The Paddock waited for the penalty to come to Grosjean….it could have been a very nasty incident. Then it was time for the major players, Mercedes would momentarily lead the session with Valtteri Bottas on top before Charles LeClerc recorded a stunning 1:28.495 whilst all Sebastian Vettel could manage was second place trailing by a few tenths to the Monegasque.
As the time ran out on Q1, the track was very unpredictable and everyone below an impressive Lando Norris in 4th place in the McLaren was at risk. When the session ended, those to depart the stage were the likely suspects of the Williams pair at the back (Robert Kubica and George Russell), Lance Stroll, Nico Hulkenburg and Antonio Giovinazzi. Yes, Nico Hulkenburg fell at the first hurdle due to the improving track conditions – despite showing such promise in free practice. We can certainly expect to see him coming through the pack on race day because you can certainly overtake at Bahrain.
The early pace setters in Q2 were the pair of Mercedes drivers with Bottas scoring 1:28.830 before Lewis Hamilton finally recorded a fast clean lap and pushed his teammate down to second. However, this was only temporary because sure enough a 1:28.046 from Leclerc took the early headlines and this time was over a second quicker than Vettel’s best of the session so far. The television audience and commentators were busy praising Leclerc but Vettel was critical of his team saying the place they put him out on track was the "worst spot ever". Meanwhile, in the droop zone, following some very close times, the unlucky five to fall were: Kvyat, Perez, Gasly, Albon and in 11th position… Daniel Ricciardo. McLaren were doing very well indeed and looking fast and consistent.
As qualifying 3 begun, there was much concern for Red Bull with Gasly having been eliminated and Max Verstappen considerably off the pace. Just what was going on at Red bull. Out on the track however, Leclerc continued his blistering pace and recorded a 1:27.958, which was two tenths quicker than his closest rival on the timing screen… Lewis Hamilton. Sebastian Vettel was still in the pits with no time recorded and time running out.
Amidst all the battle for pole, Kevin Magnussen was sitting in a very impressive 4th place due to Vettel’s absence. Finally the German headed out and it was now or never. With the soft compound attached Vettel could only manage a time 0.202 seconds…slower than Leclerc. Then, for good measure, Vettel's teammate would record a 1:27.866 and with it claim a new track record. Sebastian Vettel had previously been the quickest around Bahrain but not anymore.
So, Leclerc lived up to his promising free practice form and achieved his first Formula 1 pole position. Now, all eyes will be on him to see if he can capture the victory tomorrow and in doing so…prevent Vettel from getting the hat trick.
An intriguing prospect indeed.