Max Verstappen celebrated putting his Red Bull on pole for Sunday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix by throwing a birthday cake in David Coulthard’s face – before Lewis Hamilton claimed new rules have been introduced to end his dominance in Formula One.
Verstappen produced one of the laps of his life to light the blue touch paper on the new campaign and deliver on the prospect of a mouth-watering title fight with Hamilton.
Seven-time world champion Hamilton is the sport’s undisputed one-lap master, but he was subjected to a taste of his own medicine in the Gulf kingdom when Verstappen claimed only the fourth pole of his career.
Verstappen danced his way around the Sakhir International Circuit to finish almost four tenths of a second clear of Hamilton’s Mercedes, with Valtteri Bottas third in the other black machine.
Verstappen then sprang a surprise on Coulthard by offering him a chocolate cake before splatting it in his face. The 13-time grand prix winner, conducting the post-qualifying television interviews, turned 50 on Saturday.
Hamilton marched to victory in last year’s Covid-hit campaign – winning 11 of the 17 rounds – but mandatory alterations to the floors of the cars, which impacts downforce, appear to have had a greater impact on the Briton’s all-conquering Mercedes team than Verstappen’s Red Bull.
“It is no secret that the changes have been done to peg us back,” said Hamilton after finishing 0.388secs behind Verstappen. “We had the rule change last year to our engine to do the same thing, but that is okay.
“We love a challenge and we don’t look down at these things. We work hard to do the best we can and that is what we will do.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes team have dominated the recent era, winning the past seven drivers’ and constructors’ titles, but Red Bull have raised their game over the winter, with Verstappen primed to excel.
“It is not a relief because this is what you aim for and the last few years that hasn’t materialised,” he said.
“We knew what our weaknesses were last year, we have addressed them. We are happy with that and it is a great start, but there are no guarantees for the future.”
Hamilton, who is bidding to win an unprecedented eighth world title this year, added: “It is closer than we expected to be. This is a really good step forward because we thought we were double today’s gap to Red Bull.
“I would like to think we can close it up, but they have still got two tenths in hand.
“We want to be first, but we knew it was going to be a challenge from day one. We knew Red Bull were faster and we know we had an uphill slope to climb.”
Charles Leclerc finished fourth for Ferrari ahead of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and the McLaren duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris. Fernando Alonso, back on the grid following a two-year hiatus, will start his comeback race from ninth.
But Sergio Perez, hired by Red Bull to help Verstappen challenge Mercedes, was knocked out in Q2, qualifying only 11th.
The former Racing Point driver was sent out on the harder rubber to provide him with a stronger race set-up but, while team-mate Verstappen booked his slot in the shootout for pole, Perez missed out. The F1 bleep machine was required to hide his disappointment over the team radio.
There was misery for Sebastian Vettel, too. The four-time champion signed for the rebranded Aston Martin team in the hope of renewed glory following a dismal end to his time with Ferrari.
But he will line up in his maiden race for the returning British team on the penultimate row. Vettel, 33, finished 18th of the 20 runners.
One spot behind Vettel will be the son of his boyhood hero Michael Schumacher. In the first qualifying appearance of his career Mick Schumacher managed 19th in his uncompetitive Haas, with his rookie team-mate Nikita Mazepin – who spun at the first corner on his final run – bringing up the rear.