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

SAKHIR, Bahrain — As Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc stunned Formula One champion Max Verstappen by taking a brilliant pole position Saturday for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton made the best of a bad situation for Mercedes by qualifying in fifth spot.

Verstappen was .015 seconds ahead of Leclerc on the last time split but the Red Bull star lost time to finish .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,” Verstappen said. “Suddenly I lost a tenth (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.”

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.

“Those guys ahead of us are on another level at the moment,” Hamilton said. “We’re not quick enough to win, but I told you that before.”

He starts behind Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. in third.

“I hope we’ll make another step next week and bit by bit, we’ll hunt those guys down,” Hamilton said.

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 losing one second on a poor last run.

“Today wasn’t ideal for me,” Russell said.

Mercedes looks a heavier car and appears to be struggling as others unexpectedly improve.

“We’re trying absolutely everything at the moment to solve our global issues with the car,” Russell said.

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. The Danish driver starts in seventh place in his comeback race after replacing the axed Russian driver Nikita Mazepin.

“I’m speechless,” Magnussen said. “Being so anxious about this qualifying to really see how it is, and then finding out it is really good.”

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.

McLaren is struggling to adapt the car with one of the main issues being “porpoising” — an F1 term where an aerodynamic issue causes cars to hop and bounce on the track.

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.

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.

For Ferrari, the upward curve continues.

A horrid 2020 campaign left the Scuderia Ferrari’s Tifosi fans in tears and the team in tatters. Last year was stable with a handful of podiums but no wins.

“We have worked extremely well as a team to find ourselves in the position to fight for better places,” Leclerc said. “From the driving point, it is completely different to last year, I’ve tried many different driving styles. There’s much more to come from us.”

Ferrari’s last F1 title was Kimi Raikkonen’s in 2007.

Perhaps it could be in real contention for the first time since 2017, when four-time champion Sebastian Vettel led the championship at halfway but wilted under Hamilton’s pressure, as he did in 2018.

Leclerc beat Vettel 2-1 for wins in 2019 and even led Hamilton for most F1 poles 7-5 to showcase his speed.

He’ll go for his third race win on Sunday, with Verstappen right behind him and chasing win No. 21.

On this track three years ago, Leclerc looked set for his first F1 win until a late engine failure saw him finish third as Hamilton won.

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