Verstappen in the well-known leadership position in Bahrain despite a close group of pursuers

After a tight season with significant changes, the grid for the Bahrain Grand Prix looks familiar as Max Verstappen starts the new season on pole ahead of Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez.

Pre-season testing at Sakhir had shown that the reigning world champions and his team would maintain their dominance as the 2023 season started and further evidence to support this point was provided in the third quarter.

Ferrari topped the timesheets for the first two qualifying sessions but it was Verstappen who took command again in the top 10 shootout with a time of one minute 29.708 seconds.

Threatening the two Ferraris on the second row, Charles Leclerc in third and Carlos Sainz in fourth, Verstappen’s lap came after some significant struggles with the car’s balance, issues Red Bull rectified in time for the Dutchman to set the pace and was able to put himself in a position to dominate on race day.

Verstappen said at the press conference after qualifying: “I’m particularly happy because my whole weekend up until qualifying was very difficult.

“I couldn’t really find the comfortable balance I had in testing and I just had a lot of trouble getting the car together, really. I went into Q1 and everything felt a bit better, but it still wasn’t, shall we say, perfect. So yes, I’m very happy that we were able to do these laps in Q3.

“I still think it’s not perfect, but in a better direction. So for the next race we will have to analyze a bit why it is so different from the test to the race weekend for us and also for me in terms of driving technique.

“Nevertheless, we are sitting here with two cars. I think this is a very strong start for us after last year. So yes, I’m very happy with it.

“Fortunately, qualifying is probably the best balance I’ve had this weekend.”

Asked about the race, he added, “That should normally be our stronger point than one-lap pace. Hopefully we can show that again tomorrow.”

However, Verstappen knows he can take little for granted and concedes the field is tighter than last season.

In Q1, first-place finisher Sainz and Nyck De Vries were separated by just over a second in 19th and Verstappen not only has to look over his shoulder around the Scuderia, but may also have to deal with the threat from Aston Martin, which has seen Fernando Alonso qualified fifth ahead of the two Mercedes on his debut for the team.

“They are all very close to us,” said Verstappen when asked to name his closest challengers. “Of course we showed really good race pace, but we still have to show that tomorrow and even during a race a lot of things can happen that are sometimes out of your control.

“So yes, obviously we just have to focus on ourselves and try to do our best. And hopefully no crazy things will happen.”

But Leclerc didn’t express much hope of Ferrari overtaking Red Bull in the race.

“I think we’re only happy when we win,” said Leclerc. “But realistically they seem to be very, very fast.

“So I think on the weekends where we’re a little bit under that is exactly the weekend that we need to maximize and try to get as many points as possible.

“So yes, if there’s a chance of winning tomorrow, I’ll try. If not, we’ll try to get the maximum number of points.”

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