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Verstappen on pole for season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix

Max Verstappen’s quest for a fourth consecutive Formula One world championship began in style on Friday with the Red Bull ace claiming pole for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari will start alongside Verstappen on the front row for Saturday’s first of a record 24 races this year.

Verstappen’s 33rd career pole and third in Bahrain was a welcome boost to Red Bull after a day of continued speculation surrounding team boss Christian Horner. 

Horner, who had always denied any wrongdoing, was cleared by an internal investigation of allegations of controlling behaviour by a female colleague on Wednesday.

But he found himself under renewed pressure on Friday after private messages allegedly between him and a female staff member were leaked to Formula One officials and journalists.

Horner, who was on Friday supervising Red Bull’s cars in qualifying, said: “I won’t comment on anonymous speculation, but to reiterate, I have always denied the allegations.” 

Verstappen ensured events on the track went more smoothly and he will be favourite to emulate last year’s result when he won the first of 19 races as he swept to his third title.

“That was a lot of fun, very happy to be on pole, to be honest a little bit unexpected,” said the Dutch driver.

“It was difficult to get the lap together, but we found the balance and the car came to us. It was close and I think the race will be close too, but I am confident. Let’s see.”

Leclerc, who missed pole by only two-tenths of a second, said: “I’m a bit disappointed, but we had a good qualifying and this offers us a good start to the year.

“I’m confident we’ve taken a step forward but we still think Red Bull are ahead in the race.”

The Mercedes of George Russell and Carlos Sainz in the other Ferrari fill the second row.

Russell praised Mercedes for producing a car that he could build on. 

“P3 is a good place to start,” he said. 

Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull and Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin occupy the third row.

Then came Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri in the two McLarens, with Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Nico Hulkenberg (Haas) rounding out the top 10.

Grumbling Verstappen

The session began in cool conditions as temperatures fell under the floodlights at Sakhir’s International Circuit where Bahrain’s maiden race took place 20 years ago. 

The air temperature was 18, the track 21. 

Ferrari and the Alpines were the first on track ahead of the rest as cars slowed to pick their on-track time. 

“They are all stopping,” grumbled Verstappen. “Can I go or not? I don’t want to stop.”

Once the action began in earnest, Alex Albon of Williams set the pace on softs followed in turn by Haas’s Hulkenberg, Norris and then Verstappen before Sainz took control in 1:29.90.

The Ferrari driver’s lap was quick enough to persuade him to miss the second runs, when pit lane etiquette was again an issue as Leclerc complained. 

“I don’t agree with this,” he said after passing slow Alpine. 

The first qualifying segment ended with Sainz on top as the Alpines made an early exit along with both Saubers and Williams’ Logan Sargeant. 

After topping Thursday’s opening practice, Hamilton squeezed through in 15th place. 

Leclerc topped the times on the second runs of Q2 and Sainz was third, sandwiching Verstappen in second, while Hamilton was fourth with a late lap. 

In the final seconds of the top 10 shoot-out Verstappen improved to 1:29.179, enough to resist Leclerc by 0.228 seconds to launch his 2024 season in ominous fashion.

Exceptionally the Bahrain race and next weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are being staged on Saturdays to accommodate the Muslim holy period of Ramadan.

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