Whatever happens as Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix plays out, it will remain a memorable weekend for Valtteri Bottas, who took the first pole position of his career, one the Finn will have no fears he is capable of turning into another milestone with his first race win. He beat his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who was on a run of six consecutive pole positions, into second place with the better lap when it counted. Their front row lock-out, the first for Mercedes this season, with Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari in third, gives the team their best chance to dictate the race from the front.
Bottas is an undoubted talent but brought in to replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes this season has yet to show his best in both the single lap discipline and in race pace. Hamilton had led both Q1 and Q2 and, while Bottas initially set the marker on the first quick runs in Q3, the British driver matched it, going five-hundredths better.
On the last outing, however, the Finn, who has repeatedly insisted he is not intimidated by the three-times world champion, proved it with a lap that showed he was capable of improving on what was already an impressive time. He was strong on the apexes and inch-perfect, finding something extra in the final sector. His time of 1.28.769 was quicker than Hamilton’s initial run and the British driver could not match it, his final run three-hundredths back.
The Finn is not lacking in self-belief and with the two Mercedes drivers allowed to race one another, he has every chance to win and add another intriguing element to a fascinating opening to the 2017 season. “It is too early to say about the title fight but we are now the two best teams and I feel I’m now in the game,” said Bottas.
“It took me a few races to get pole but hopefully it’s the first of many,” he added. “For a short period of time you have to enjoy what you have done but the main point is tomorrow so there is no point starting to dream about anything. It is all about focusing on the race, and getting the maximum out of it. Hopefully we can get the team’s first one-two of the year.”
The last time a Finnish driver took pole was Heikki Kovalainen at Silverstone in 2008, beating Hamilton to the top spot when the pair were at McLaren and the British driver welcomed the additional challenge to his battle with Vettel from his current team-mate. “I’m really happy it’s more than just the two of us,” he said. “There’s going to be lots of ups and downs this year but Valtteri’s definitely keeping me on my toes and I’m thoroughly happy for him.”
Hamilton also admitted he had just been unable to beat Bottas when it counted and was as generous to his team-mate as he has been in his rivalry with Vettel this season. “Today he was just quicker, and did a better job, so hats off to him,” he said. “It is a great battle and that is how close qualifying should always be. It forces us to be more on the limit.”
Bottas had qualified in third in Australia and China, both times beaten to the front row by Vettel, but there was more concern after he had spun while behind the safety car in Shanghai. The team’s executive director, Toto Wolff, said his ability to come back was a strength. “He was down after that happened and he apologised many times but he has paid it back today,” he said. “I think he generally is not easily shaken. When he has bad days, as in Shanghai, he recovers quickly, he continues to improve all the time – that’s an important skill.”
The Mercedes lock-out was four and a half tenths quicker than Vettel, who was split from his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen in fifth by the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, whose fourth was the best his team have managed this season and indicative of the improvement they have achieved all weekend in Bahrain.
Vettel conceded that “the gap to Mercedes was bigger than I expected” but added: “We will fight tomorrow.” The Scuderia will have more to come in race pace than is suggested by the gap to Mercedes and Wolff acknowledged he expected them to be stronger on Sunday.
Hamilton and Vettel are tied on points with 43 each at the top of the drivers’ championship having scored one win and a second place apiece, and there has been little to choose between them thus far in the season, but starting with a one-two is a definite advantage to Mercedes before the lights go out at the Sakhir circuit, where they have been undefeated since the beginning of the turbo-hybrid engine formula in 2014.
A one-stopper is the most likely strategy for today, although the significant time difference between the soft and supersoft tyres does offer the option of going aggressive and two-stopping.
Max Verstappen in the second Red Bull was sixth, while Nico Hülkenberg was mightily impressive to take seventh in the Renault. Felipe Massa’s Williams was in eighth, Haas’s Romain Grosjean in ninth and Britain’s Jolyon Palmer did well to put his Renault into Q3 for the first time in his F1 career and he finished in 10th place.
McLaren had another disappointing qualifying and the problems were once again with the Honda engine. Fernando Alonso was unable to run in Q2 with a power unit problem and finished in 15th.
Valtteri Bottas is flanked by Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton after taking pole. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP
Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat in the Toro Rosso was in 11th; Lance Stroll in the Williams in 12th; Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber in 13th and the Force India of Esteban Ocon in 14th.
Force India’s Sergio Pérez was knocked out in Q3 in 18th place – underperforming at a circuit at which the team and driver have been traditionally strong. Carlos Sainz lost power Fernando Alonso must already be counting down the days until the Indy 500 on May 28. The Spaniard’s engine failed early in qualifying, pushing his McLaren to 15th place on the grid. “It will be a long, hot and difficult one for both our drivers,” McLaren’s race director, Eric Boullier, said. “But that’s the hand they’ve currently been dealt, and they’ll play it as best they can.”