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Lights Out! Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull renew modern rivalry at Bahrain Grand Prix

By Robert Abong'o - Mar 20th 2022

Formula One F1 - Bahrain Grand Prix - Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain - March 19, 2022 Ferrari's Charles Leclerc during qualifying. [Reuters, Giuseppe Cacace]

At exactly 6:00 pm East African Time, lights will go out at the Bahrain International Circuit as 20 drivers from 10 teams line up on the track for the opening race of the 2022 Formula One season, the Bahrain Grand Prix.

On the backdrop of a hotly-contested and controversial 2021 championship, this season has been dubbed ‘unpredictable' in the modern hybrid era, considering the significant technical regulations introduced to allow cars to race closer to each other. The new regulations are also intended to reduce overall costs, by making designs simpler in general.

Having ended pre-season testing on top, it was expected defending champion, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen would be at the very front of the grid. However, the Dutchman was yesterday pipped to pole by Monacan Charles Leclerc, who was fastest in Q1 and Q3.

Verstappen is still confident of a good performance, although he admits the team hasn’t achieved the right balance with the RB18.

“I always knew it was going to be very close. Q2 was quite good but in Q3 it was a bit more like a hit and miss, with not really getting the right balance, always a bit of oversteer, a bit of understeer, and then you can’t attack the corner like you really want. [Ferrari] are very close, and it’s going to be a very tough battle, but I’m excited,” said Verstappen.

Ferrari’s Leclerc claimed only his second Bahrain GP pole and a 10th career pole after setting a pace of 1m 30.558s, 0.123s ahead of second-placed Verstappen and 0.129s ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz.

Leclerc seemed satisfied with starting the race ahead of everyone else on the grid, having last won a race in 2019.

“The last two years for the team have been extremely difficult after 2019… we had two very difficult years where I knew it was just a matter of time before we got back to the top because we were working well – but until you actually do it, you always have the doubt,” said Leclerc.

Having stopped the development of their car mid-2021, Leclerc admitted Ferrari are on the right track to getting back to the top.

“This season, we managed to make a car that is back to where it deserves, which is to at least be in the mix for the top positions. And today the car was great – it wasn’t an easy qualifying session, very difficult to keep the tyres in the right window and to actually put a lap together. I struggled quite a bit during qualifying, but the last Q3 lap was good enough for pole, so I'm very happy about this,” Leclerc told press.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton delivered his worst-ever qualifying performance in Bahrain in 11 years and could only manage P5 in Q3. The Mercedes’ W13 has had issues since the start of pre-season testing, the latest a ‘bouncing’ problem experienced by Hamilton. Merc also have porpoising and lock up issues, seen during the second day of practice.

“I’m not saying I’m relieved [but] I’m generally really happy today. Given where we’ve been the last few weeks, the struggles that we’ve had, the problems that we’ve had with the car; it’s been a bit of a nightmare to drive, “said Hamilton.

Formula One F1 - Bahrain Grand Prix - Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain - March 19, 2022 Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton during qualifying [Reuters, Hamad I Mohammed]

“But we’ve just kept our heads down, kept working. I’m proud of everyone for just staying positive. And to get fifth in quali – those guys ahead of us are just in another league, so I’m generally happy with where we are. It’s not the front row but we’ll make improvements and do the best we can tomorrow,” he added.

Formerly of Mercedes, now at Alfa Romeo, Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas will start the Bahrain GP in P6, three positions ahead of his replacement George Russell. 

“P6, it’s good for us. I think we did know that if we got everything right, we had a chance to get into Q3, it was extremely close. But got some good laps in there, and the Q3 lap, I was really pleased with that. P6 is really good for our team, and the motivation and seeing that it is actually possible and it’s a reality,” said Bottas.

Bahrain Grand Prix Starting Grid

1. Charles Leclerc - Ferrari

2. Max Verstappen - Red Bull

3. Carlos Sainz - Ferrari

4. Sergio Perez - Red Bull

5. Lewis Hamilton - Mercedes

6. Valtteri Bottas - Alfa Romeo

7. Kevin Magnussen - Haas

8. Fernando Alonso – Alpine

9. George Russell - Mercedes

10. Pierre Gasly - AlphaTauri

11. Esteban Ocon - Alpine

12. Mick Schumacher - Haas

13. Lando Norris - McLaren

14. Alex Albon - Williams

15. Guanyu Zhou - Alfa Romeo

16. Yuki Tsunoda - AlphaTauri

17. Nico Hulkenberg - Aston Martin

18. Daniel Ricciardo - McLaren

19. Lance Stroll - Aston Martin

20. Nicholas Latifi - Williams

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