Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, believes the fight for the championship is now a three-way battle after he sprung the surprise of the season to secure the maiden pole position of his career.
The formative rounds of the new Formula One campaign have been played out against the backdrop of Hamilton versus Sebastian Vettel in what could yet prove to be a rivalry for the ages.
But the title protagonists may now have to make room for three, after Bottas – the understated Finnish driver who has replaced Nico Rosberg at Mercedes this season – turned in the finest moment yet of his sporting life under the floodlights in Bahrain. It was Hamilton who appeared destined to claim his seventh consecutive pole in a row – just one short of Ayrton Senna’s record – only for Bottas to edge out Britain’s triple world champion with his final roll of the dice in a thrill-a-minute qualifying session.
While both Hamilton and Vettel, tied on 43 points ahead of Sunday’s race, failed to improve on their final timed laps, Bottas delivered when it mattered most to beat Hamilton to pole by just 0.02sec on this 3.4-mile circuit.
Hamilton celebrated Bottas’s pole lap almost like one of his own. Moments after stepping out of his car, he grabbed his team-mate from behind and offered his hand in celebration. His ensuing smiles appeared genuine. It was certainly not a reaction he would have reserved for the man who use to occupy Bottas’s Mercedes cockpit.
“It is early days to speak about the title fight, and it is going to be as is a massively long season, but I feel like I am in the game,” Bottas, 27, said.
“For a short period of time you have to enjoy what you have done over the weekend, but the main point is tomorrow so there is no point starting to dream about anything.”
Hamilton, sitting next to his team-mate, was beaming with pride.
“Firstly, a big congratulations to Valtteri,” the Briton said. “He has been working so hard and jelled so well with the team. Today he was just quicker, and did a better job, so hats off to him. He is getting stronger and stronger. It always was at least a three-way battle as Valtteri has been right there with us from the beginning, so nothing changes.”
For all of Hamilton’s brilliance, he has never been comfortable with losing, but that appears to have changed this term – firstly after Vettel triumphed in Australia and now here on Saturday night. Is he relishing the fight, and in Bottas, perhaps, a new rival? “It is great how close it is between the teams because it brings out the best in each driver,” Hamilton, five years Bottas’s senior, said. “When you feel like you are at your best, and you do a good job and you are fighting against someone else who is doing just as good a job, it is that much more exciting, and the more drivers we have in the mix the more intense it gets.
“There are going to be lots of ups and downs but Valtteri is definitely keeping me on my toes and I am thoroughly happy for him today. I know how special it is to get your first pole – you dream of it as a kid – and tomorrow could be his first grand prix victory, but I will try my hardest to win.”
Vettel, who lines up in third, was four-tenths of a second slower than Bottas, but his Ferrari should be closer to the Mercedes in race trim. Daniel Ricciardo qualified fourth for Red Bull.
Jolyon Palmer, Britain’s No 2, has endured a torrid start to the new season, but he progressed to Q3 – the final phase of qualifying – for the first time in his career, and starts a lofty 10th.
Meanwhile, Bernie Ecclestone is back in a Formula One paddock for the first time since he was ousted by the sport’s new owners Liberty Media following their £6.4 billion purchase in January.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the 86-year-old, who on Friday admitted he had never exchanged a single word with Sean Bratches, the American now operating as the sport’s commercial chief, sat with two of his allies in Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and former Renault boss Flavio Briatore, rather than any of the new regime.
Had he still been in charge, Ecclestone claimed he would not have allowed Fernando Alonso to miss next month’s blue-riband Monaco Grand Prix. So, with that in mind, the double world champion will be pleased that Ecclestone is no longer at the helm of the sport another miserable day in which an engine problem meant he did not take to the track in the second phase of qualifying.
He is set to start 15th, but could drop to the back of the grid if he is required to change his Honda power unit. Jenson Button, his replacement for Monte Carlo, is unlikely to be champing at the bit to get back in the hapless McLaren he deserted in Abu Dhabi last November..
Final positions after qualifying:
1. Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari
4. Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull - TAG Heuer
5. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari
6. Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull - TAG Heuer
7. Nico Huelkenberg (Ger) Renault
8. Felipe Massa (Bra) Williams-Mercedes
9. Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas - Ferrari
10. Jolyon Palmer (GBR) Renault
11. Daniil Kvyat (Rus) Toro Rosso - Renault
12. Lance Stroll (Can) Williams-Mercedes
13. Pascal Wehrlein (Ger) Sauber - Ferrari
14. Esteban Ocon (Fra) Force India - Mercedes
15. Fernando Alonso (Spa) McLaren
16. Carlos Sainz Jr (Spa) Toro Rosso - Renault
17. Stoffel Vandoorne (Bel) McLaren
18. Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India - Mercedes
19. Marcus Ericsson (Swe) Sauber - Ferrari
20. Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas - Ferrari
Max muses about the race
Verstappen believes that the Red bull's will put up more of a challenge tomorrow, but 4th and 6th aren't awful qualifying positions.
That said, it's hard to see then finishing ahead of the Mercedes or the Ferrari's.
A nice little fun fact for you
Do we have a new bromance at Mercedes?
What will tomorrow bring?
Now that he's got his first pole, will he be able to do the double in Bahrain?
Hamilton and Vettel will both fancy their chances, having won here before but leading from the from will obviously give him a lot of confidence for the rest of the weekend.
Well, well, well
That was not what was expected, but you have to say Bottas deserved his pole. Despite Hamilton jumping ahead of him in the previous two sessions he stayed calm to clock a time of 1:28.769. He was just 0.023 seconds ahead of the three-time World Champion.
Verstappen may be disappointed with his P6 after topping the times in practice three. Behind him are Hulkenberg, Massa, Grosjean and Palmer.
Bottas' first pole of his F1 career
Absolutely brilliant drive by the Finnish driver who found the extra pace to stay ahead of his teammate. Hamilton, Vettel, Ricciardo and Raikonnen make up the top five. A great run from the Red Bull who has been behind his teammate for most of the weekend.
BOTTAS ON POLE!
Hamilton messes up the middle sector and goes second. It's a Mercedes front row, but the Briton can't get ahead of his teammate.
Just seconds remaining
Everyone except Grosjean are out on their flying laps as Bottas and Hamilton fight for pole position. Bottas takes pole.
As it stands with three minutes left
The top seven are all in the pits, and here are the latest times.
Mercedes front row as it stands
Hamilton leads from Bottas, Vettel and Raikonnen. Verstappen makes up the top five and there is just 0.895 seconds from the Mercedes to the Red Bull.
Bottas gets a 1:28.844 but Hamilton jumps ahead of him, again with a 1:28.792.
Now we are waiting for the ~Ferrari's who are looking slower.
Eight minutes left
Five minutes are already gone as we await the first lap time, with the out lap not counting.
Hulkenberg, Grosjean and Palmer are still in the pits.
Lots of tyre talk today
Just a reminder that they will want to do as few laps as possible in Q3 as they will start the race on the set they are currently using. All driver'#s are expected to head out on the red Super soft's.
Q3 is a go
Just 12 minutes for the ten driver's to book their place for tomorrow's race.
Ricciardo is the first man out on track, quickly followed by the Mercedes.
Q2 Provisional places
There are some names in Q3 that we are not used to seeing. Haas driver Grosjean will be pleased to be there after his stressful FP3. The first time there has been two Renault's in Q3 since 2011.
Joining Alonso in being cut after Q2 was Ocon, Wehrlein, Stroll and Kvyat.
An awful day for Toro Rosso who have no driver's in Q3 this weekend.
The Renault's are here to race
Prior to today Palmer had never got out of Q1, he is now in Q3 after squeezing through in tenth. And his teammate Hulkenberg ended the session in fifth.
Alonso was already out due to a broken power unit. Yes, another one!
Two minutes of Q2 left
Grosjean, Ocon, Wehrlein and Stroll will end their day here unless they improve on their times in the next two minutes.
Fernando Alonso is just chilling in the pits with under five minutes left. The helmet is off, the jumpsuit is down, that is his day over.
He will start the race in 15th, which may explain why he's so keen to go to the Indy500...
The Mercedes are back in the pits
Hamilton leads ahead of Bottas, Vettel, Raikonnen and Verstappen.
Ricciardo, Massa, Kvyatt, Hulkenberg and Palmer make up the top ten who would head to Q3 if the session were to end now.
1:29s here we come
Hamilton jumps ahead of his teammate with a 1:29.535, just 0.020s ahead of Bottas.
Just two to go
13 of the 15 cars are out on track, with Lance stroll and Pascal Wehrlein still in their respective garages.
I won't tell repeat what Sainz said over the radio to his Toro Rosso team, but they were very apologetic which suggests it was their fault.
If there is nothing wrong with his car, then what happened?
Before he pulled over, he was absolutely flying.
And the 15 minutes are on the clock so lets see who can make it to the coveted Q3 session.
No one on the track as yet.
Here's the provisional times at the end of Q1
Perez and Sainz
Very disappointing result for Sainz and Perez who have both impressed so far this season. This is exactly the sort of track that Perez seems to love as a lot of it is about tyre management.
Sainz out! Q1 over!
The Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz is stranded on the track after his car loses power. He is joined by Vandoorne, Perez, Ericsson and Magnusson.
Jolyon Palmer ends Q1 in a impressive 8th place. It is the first time he has made Q2 this season.
And Raikkonen has a bit of a nightmare as Perez doesn't let him past and he loses time, he is currently on third and it won't make a huge difference but he needs all the practice he can get after missing most of FP1 yesterday.
Grosjean, well, goes
Romain Grosjean is finally getting a handle on his Haas car and is up to 8th with just over a minute of the first qualifying session left.
Nearing the cut-off point
As it stands with just over two minutes of Q1 left; the driver's who will be cut at the end of this session are Ocon, Ericsson, Magnusson, Stroll and Palmer.
Everyone except the Mercedes and the Ferrari's are on the supersoft tyres. Those teams know their pace will see them through to Q2.
Just over five minutes of Q1 left
Bottas was leading until Max Verstappen jumped ahead of him but Hamilton has come back out and clocked the fastest time of the weekend with 1:30.814 to go top.
Here's how the drivers times currently look.
Everybody is out.
Everyone is out on the track. Lewis Hamilton has just locked up which means he wouldn't make it to Q2 if that was his final lap. Currently his teammate Bottas leads with a time of 1:31.041.
He's followed by Massa, Ricciardo, Kvyat and Sainz.
Anyone else jealous?
So the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are on the supersoft tyres, which are the slower of the two soft sets.
The pit lane is filling up
We've got more cars out on track as Pascal Wehrlein sets a time of 1:33.502, 0.458s ahead of Marcus Ericsson.
And we're off
We have our first piece of action as Wehrlein, Stroll and Ericsson are out on the track.
Just a reminder that we will lose five cars at the end of Q1 and Q2, before the final ten will fight it out for pole position.
Five minutes to go...
We are nearly there. You've got enough time to grab a drink, get a snack and get yourself comfortable as we see if Ferrari can get their first pole of 2017.
Bahrain International Circuit
The track is one of the longest in F1 with a length of 5.412km (3.638m), of which the driver's will do 57 laps; totalling 308.238km (191.530m).
15 minutes to go...
We're getting nearer to qualifying and the temperature has dropped to 31 degree Celcius and thankfully the wind looks to be slowing down, as the driver's get ready to book their place ahead of tomorrow's race.
Who will come out on top in qualifying?
I think we all expect to see Vettel or Hamilton on pole, with the Briton looking for his third from three races this season.
Talking of Fernando
As you may have heard, Fernando will miss the Monaco GP in May in order to compete in the Indianapolis 500. His replacement will be Jenson Button who has been acting as an ambassador for McLaren this year.
Former driver David Coulthard is one of many who thinks it's a great idea. You can read why, here.
Pedro De La Rosa set a time of 1:31.447 in 2005.
The winner of that race was Fernando Alonso, who has won in Bahrain three times - the most of any driver. That year he also won his first title with Renault.
Who do you think will be on pole?
There is still time to get your votes in ahead of the qualifying which starts at 4:00pm.
Can Verstappen convert that practice speed into a qualifying time?
After topping the charts in FP3 and his podium finish in Shanghai, the teenager is clearly confident in his car.
40 minutes to go...
So we finally get to see Pascal Wehrlein in a Sauber this weekend after he missed the first two races due to a back injury. The German driver raced for Manor in 2016 and picked up just a solitary point from his 21 races, but he did end the final practice session in 13th.
Antonio Giovinazzi stood in for him and finished in an impressive 12th place in Melbourne, but was only able to complete three laps in Shanghai.
The all important Championship table
Here's how the driver's sit after the first two races of the 2017 season.
New set-up's for the top two
Both the Ferrari's and Mercedes' have new set-up's ahead of the weekend and it has clearly worked well for the Italian team who have been very fast in the heat of Bahrain.
The Story So far...
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are joint leaders at the top of the Championship after the two races in Australia and China. Max Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen make up the top five.
Here's what happened in Practice 3
Max Verstappen shocked everyone to finish the final practice session of the Bahrain Grand Prix ahead of the favourites.
The teenager's impressive weekend continued but there are still doubts over the capability of the Red Bull car during the race, with teammate Daniel Ricciardo ending the session in seventh.
The Red Bull was just 0.110 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel a further 0.556s further back. Their teammates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen completed the top five.
Hamilton and Vettel are joint leaders in the championship with a win and a second-placed finish each and with the Ferrari vastly improving, the German driver will be keen to create space between the two.
Most of the driver’s from the top three teams remained in the garage until the last 15 minutes with a heavy wind catching out some of the teams, particularly on that final corner.
The hour-long session gave little information about who would be leading from the front on Sunday afternoon, particularly with the weather due to drop significantly in the two hours before qualifying.
Romain Grosjean didn’t have the best start to the day in his Haas as he crashed out on turn four and lost his front wing, although he managed to get the car back to the pits and then return to the track he later, went on lose power.
There was more good work from the Force India’s with Sergio Perez sitting in 11th and Esteban Ocon five places behind him.
Nico Hulkenberg continued to impress following his 11th and 12th placed finishes in Australia and China respectively, while his teammate Jolyon Palmer’s struggles continued as he ended the session at the bottom of the table.
We are one hour away from qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix and we will be keeping you up to date with all the action at the International Circuit in Sakhir.