Verstappen surprised by Bahrain pole as Hamilton says 'we can definitely close the gap'
Formula One world champion Max Verstappen surprised himself by claiming pole position in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Verstappen, on the hunt for a third straight world title, will start at the front of the grid in Sunday's season-opening race after recording a quickest lap of 1:29:708 on Saturday.
Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez qualified in second to complete the front row, with the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz behind them on the second row.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton had to settle for seventh behind Mercedes team-mate George Russell, with Fernando Alonso wedged in fifth.
Ferrari had topped the opening two qualifying sessions but with Verstappen coming good in Q3, they elected against heading out again, instead choosing to conserve their tyres.
"It has been a bit of a tough start to the weekend yesterday and today not really finding my rhythm, but luckily in qualifying we managed to put the best pieces together," Verstappen said.
"I am very happy to be on pole. For the whole team coming off last year and again having such a strong car with Checo up there as well. It is amazing and I am looking forward to tomorrow.
"The changes slowed down the car a bit but we are still going faster, which is great to see. Throughout the year, you will see everyone increasing their performance again a lot and that is the beautiful thing about Formula One.
"I was actually positively surprised to be on pole after the struggles I had in practice. Normally our race car is better, so let's see."
Despite having plenty of work to do to compete for a podium finish, Hamilton was in a buoyant mood.
"We went in with a really open mind," he told Sky Sports. "I woke up thinking we were going to be a lot further behind, and so the fact we're even getting into Q3 was great.
"We made a step forward today and the car was feeling much more alive this morning, and all of a sudden we were in a different place to where we were the day before. But then we got to qualifying and for me the car just didn't feel alive, it felt kind of average.
"It's not an impossible mountain to climb, so that's a positive, and I know everyone back at the factory has been working so hard. We can definitely close the gap, we've just got really focus and push like never before."
Leclerc, meanwhile, was happy with Ferrari's strategy despite believing he had the chance to fight for pole.
"There wasn't any issue. I think we were in the fight for pole, which was a good surprise to be honest because I did not expect that after testing and after free practices that were a little bit difficult," Leclerc said.
"We managed to find that pace for the qualifying pace, which was great. However, we need to keep in our mind that on the race runs, we seemed to be a little bit on the back foot compared to Red Bull.
"I think that we're in a better place starting third with new tyres than starting first with older. I don't know if I would have been in pole or not but it would have been close."
1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
3. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)
5. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin)
6. George Russell (Mercedes)
7. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
8. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine)
10. Nico Hulkenberg (Haas)