Max Verstappen hinted he could be a thorn in the side of Mercedes in Bahrain in final practice, but when it mattered the Silver Arrows came to the fore, with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton dominating every segment of qualifying to take pole position.
The Mercedes driver was pegged to just 0.146s by Verstappen after the first runs in Q3, suggesting there could be a tight battle. But Hamilton improved by another quarter of a second on his final run, pushing pole out of reach of his rivals to take his 98th career P1 start.
His team mate Valtteri Bottas popped up into second, the Finn at a loss to explain why he simply wasn’t a threat to Hamilton throughout the session, but he did at least ensure Mercedes lock out the front row for the fifth consecutive season in Bahrain and 75th time in the team’s history.
Verstappen was forced to settle for third, though he can take comfort from starting on the cleaner side of the grid, the Dutchman suggesting the team’s greater focus in setting the car up was on the race, with tyre degradation expected to be crucial on Sunday evening.
He was backed up by Red Bull team mate Alex Albon, who equalled his best-ever start, in fourth, albeit six tenths of a second off the pace of his team mate, with Racing Point’s Sergio Perez popping up into fifth, having reached Q3 for the first time since 2014.
Daniel Ricciardo was slowest of all after the first runs, but he protected his tyres on a slow out lap before pumping in the sixth fastest time, qualifying in the top six for the fifth time in the last six Grands Prix, and outqualifying his team mate Esteban Ocon – who ended up seventh – for the 13th straight race, albeit this time by only 0.002s.
Pierre Gasly was eighth, with AlphaTauri team mate Daniil Kvyat 10th, as the Italian team reached Q3 with both cars for the second time in three races, with Lando Norris the best-placed McLaren in ninth, after his team mate Carlos Sainz suffered a mechanical problem that caused a spin and ended his qualifying early in Q2.
It was another difficult day for Ferrari as both Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel were knocked out in Q2, with the German one place ahead of his team mate in 11th.
Hamilton set an impressive pace as qualifying got going under the lights in Bahrain, as Mercedes demonstrated why they are still the ones to beat despite already having sealed both championships.
Their junior driver Russell was also in great form, using his final run in Q1 to leap out of the drop zone and comfortably into safety, ending up nearly a second quicker than Williams team mate Nicholas Latifi.
Stroll, who made some set-up changes between final practice and qualifying, pumped in the second fastest time with moments of the session to go, while Albon looked strong, too, having put Friday’s crash behind him.
There wasn’t such good news for Alfa Romeo, as while Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen went quicker on their final runs, so did their immediate rivals, which shuffled them back into the drop zone. They were eliminated, along with the Haas duo of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean – the latter having failed to exit Q1 in his last six attempts – and Latifi.
Knocked out: Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Magnussen, Grosjean, Latifi
Carlos Sainz looked to have the pace to make it comfortably into Q2, but he wasn’t afforded the chance to deliver on that promise after he lost the car under braking into Turn 1, as the rear wheels axels appeared to lock.
The Spaniard couldn’t get his McLaren going again, forcing a red flag, which in turn forced everyone to back out of their first timed laps. When the session got going again, Verstappen set the early pace, before being usurped by Hamilton.
Gasly could only go 10th fastest with his final time, but with both Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc plus the Racing Point of Lance Stroll failing to better him, the AlphaTauri scraped into the final segment of qualifying.
Interestingly, all of the top 10 managed to get through on the medium tyre, which was the preferred start tyre as they bid to avoid running the soft in the race.
Knocked out: Vettel, Leclerc, Stroll, Russell, Sainz
Hamilton looked at ease as he comfortably pumped in the quickest time of the session so far on his first run on the soft tyres in Q3, and at that point, only Verstappen looked to be in a position to spoil the party.
But the seven-time world champion pulled even further clear next time around, while Bottas managed to improve to slot into second and add a rosy tint to Mercedes’ day as they locked out the front row.
With Verstappen slotting into third, the one-two-three was the same for the ninth time in the last 12 races, albeit not always in that order. It was Red Bull’s first P3 in Bahrain since the event became a night race in 2014.
Albon was an encouraging fourth, the Thai driver showing strong consistency throughout the three segments of qualifying, ahead of Perez and Ricciardo and Ocon.
The Bahrain Grand Prix kicks off at 17:10 local time, which is 14:10 GMT. Hamilton appears to be in a league of his own, riding high after his title victory in Turkey, but Verstappen is lurking in a Red Bull package that could be more of a threat in the race.