Valtteri Bottas pipped his substitute Mercedes team mate George Russell to pole position for the Sakhir Grand Prix by just 0.026s, as the Silver Arrows set a scintillating pace in qualifying, with the top 10 separated by less than a second.
It was Russell, standing in for Lewis Hamilton who tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the weekend, who looked the quicker of the two cars on Friday, but Bottas found more pace on Saturday to set up a thrilling showdown in Bahrain.
Bottas was quickest on his second run – first on soft tyres – with Russell slotting into second, but it was the Briton who was lighting up the timesheets on the final runs.
Pole was within his grasp, but he ultimately missed out by a fraction of the second, and while P2 is his best-ever grid slot, defeat to Bottas means his run of 36 qualifying sessions having never been beaten by a team mate since his F1 debut is over.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was their closest challenger, 0.030s further back, in what was an incredibly close session on F1’s shortest circuit, while Charles Leclerc did just one run – but it was good enough for a remarkable fourth for the fourth time this season.
It’s déjà vu for Sergio Perez, who is running an old spec engine after suffering a failure that cost him a podium last time out in Bahrain, after he qualified fifth for the second successive week, one place ahead of AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat whose P6 is his best since the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Daniel Ricciardo was the best-placed Renault in seventh, just edging out McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and the Racing Point of Lance Stroll closing out the top 10.
Bottas led the away in the first part of qualifying, the Finn and his substitute team mate Russell using the medium compound tyres to ease through, as they were split by the Red Bull of Verstappen, who used just one set of softs.
At the other end of the spectrum Albon just squeezed through in 15th on the bubble, with the Haas of Kevin Magnussen the first driver to get knocked out, seven tenths of a second quicker than team mate Pietro Fittipaldi, who is standing in for the injured Romain Grosjean this weekend.
Nicholas Latifi was the leading Williams, but he was just one tenth of a second clear of Jack Aitken, standing in for Russell, who impressively outqualified the Alfa Romeo of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen under the lights at Sakhir in his first ever F1 qualifying session.
Knocked out: Magnussen, Latifi, Aitken, Raikkonen, Fittipaldi
Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault sent their respective drivers out on the medium tyre, while Verstappen took that compound, too. Bottas and Russell went second and fourth, but it was super close at the sharp end, with just 0.053s separating the top five.
Perez set the pace in the Racing Point, with Sainz third and Stroll fifth, but there was work to do for Esteban Ocon, Pierre Gasly, Sebastian Vettel, Lando Norris, who aborted his lap, and Antonio Giovinazzi who were in the drop zone with two minutes to go.
Everyone headed out for one final run, with Verstappen – who like the Ferraris swapped to the softs – improving to go quickest. However, it wasn’t so good for his team mate Albon, the Thai driver struggling for pace as he ended up four tenths off the time of the Dutchman and out in 12th.
Ocon missed out by a fraction in 11th, while Vettel couldn’t match his team mate Charles Leclerc and will start 13th, ahead of Giovinazzi. Norris was disappointed with himself on team radio, apologising for making a mistake on his second run, leaving him 15th, 11 places behind Sainz.
Knocked out: Ocon, Albon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Norris
The fielded headed out on the soft tyre for the start of Q3, aside from Gasly who opted for a set of mediums, with Verstappen pulling out an absolute cracker to take provisional pole, followed by an arguably more impressive lap by Leclerc who went second, 0.022s off the pace.
Mercedes’ Bottas and Russell ended up third and fifth respectively, however, their laps were completed on used sets of soft tyres, as the Silver Arrows had opted to go for three runs, given the short lap made such a strategy possible.
With fresh tyres on his car, Bottas pumped in the quickest time so far – a 53.377s – with Russell clocking the fastest final sector as he slotted into second, 0.142s off the pace, while everyone else sat in the garage. Leclerc even climbed out of the car, his session complete after just one run.
Russell got closer to Bottas on his final run, but it wasn’t quite enough. Second, though, makes him the 25th British driver to qualify on the front row for a Grand Prix, while Verstappen was a threat to Mercedes throughout, and ended up just 0.056s adrift.
Sainz was the leading McLaren in eighth, the Spaniard starting seven places higher than he managed last time out in Bahrain after a brake issue, while Gasly was outqualified by Kvyat for only the third time in 2020 – and first time in seven races.
The Sakhir Grand Prix kicks off at 20:10 local time, which is 17:10 GMT. With world champion Hamilton absent, and a new short and sharp circuit to boot, we have a recipe for an absolute thriller. Bottas is best-placed, but Russell has been extraordinary so far, having swapped his Williams for a Mercedes, and is in great shape not only for his first F1 podium (and points) but perhaps even a first victory.