SAKHIR, Bahrain (AP) — Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas took pole position ahead of temporary teammate George Russell for the Sakhir Grand Prix on Saturday.
It was the 16th pole of Bottas' career and he placed just .026 seconds ahead of Russell, driving in a Mercedes for the first time in the absence of world champion Lewis Hamilton, and .056 clear of Red Bull's Max Verstappen.
“I'm happy to be on pole but it wasn't my best performance in qualifying,” said Bottas, who has five poles this season and goes for his third win of the campaign.
But he was pushed hard by the highly rated Russell, who made the transition from Williams seamlessly.
“It’s been incredibly intense, with so much to learn and such a different way of driving in this car," he said. “I was a bit nervous heading into qualifying. But I managed to get in the groove and was getting better and better every lap. I’m a bit gutted to miss out on pole.”
Charles Leclerc, who led F1 with seven poles last season, drove superbly in a Ferrari which has not been competitive this year and qualified in fourth place ahead of Racing Point's Sergio Perez.
Former champion Kimi Raikkonen was among the five drivers eliminated from Q1, the first part of qualifying. Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari; McLaren's Lando Norris, and Red Bull's Alexander Albon all went out of Q2, while Verstappen topped it to set himself up well for Q3.
Earlier, Verstappen boosted Red Bull by posting the fastest time in the third and final practice but lacked enough pace to unsettle Mercedes on his final lap in qualifying.
“I hope we have a bit of fun tomorrow,” Verstappen said after missing out on his first pole this season. “All the lap times are so close.”
Hamilton will not be around this time, but Verstappen is wary of Russell.
“For sure both of the Mercedes cars will be quick tomorrow,” he said. “George is a good driver so we need to take care of both cars to try and win.”
In P3, Verstappen moved up the leaderboard late in the session to finish .21 seconds ahead of Bottas and .36 clear of Russell.
Verstappen has won one race this season in a slower car than Mercedes.
Russell topped both of Friday's practice sessions in an impressive performance after stepping in as a replacement for world champion Lewis Hamilton, who is self-isolating for 10 days after contracting the coronavirus earlier this week.
Hamilton sealed his record-equaling seventh F1 title last month in Turkey in a season where he extended his record number of pole positions to 98 and broke the F1 record for GP wins.
Hamilton has 95 wins compared to 91 for seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher, whose son Mick is set to clinch the F2 title this weekend ahead of his move into F1 with the Haas team next season.
Drivers again raced at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir but on a smaller outer track of 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) instead of 5.4 kilometers (3.3 miles) and with 87 laps rather than 54.
“It’s going to be challenging and a bit of a step into the unknown on this track with so many laps,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what happens and it’s sure to be very exciting.”
Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who escaped a horrific crash at last Sunday’s Bahrain GP with minor burns and a sprained ankle, was replaced by Pietro Fittipaldi. He is the grandson of two-time F1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi and is the fourth member of Fittipaldi to race in F1.
He will start his first F1 race from last place on the grid.
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