Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton set a track record at the Bahrain Grand Prix on his way to a record-extending 98th career pole position on Saturday. The seven-time F1 champion looked in total control as he set a time of 1 minute, 27.264 seconds under the floodlights.
“We did some really good work overnight. I was really happy with the car from the get-go,” the veteran British driver said. “I just didn't make any mistakes.”
He finished about .3 seconds ahead of his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas and around .4 clear of Red Bull's Max Verstappen.
Bottas thought he was closer to Hamilton's time. “I was quite surprised when I saw the gap,” the Finnish driver said. “I definitely have the speed but I haven't quite got it all together yet.”
Verstappen, however, is resigned to being in Mercedes' shadow.
“You always want more but it's important to stay realistic. I'm just pushing as hard as I can with the material I have,” Verstappen said. “We'll see what we can do tomorrow, it's quite aggressive on the tires here.”
Verstappen's teammate Alexander Albon was in fourth place and a full second behind Hamilton, who will bid for his record-extending 95th F1 win on Sunday.
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc took the first of his seven pole positions last season in Bahrain, but this year the team has struggled badly and he starts from 12th place behind teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Former champion Kimi Raikkonen was among the five drivers eliminated from Q1 while Carlos Sainz Jr. went out of Q2 after his rear tires blocked and his McLaren stalled on the track. Qualifying was halted for a few minutes while his car was removed.
Earlier, Verstappen beat Hamilton's leading time to go fastest in the final practice. The Dutchman was .26 ahead of Hamilton and .37 ahead of Bottas.
Hamilton was quickest in both practice runs on Friday and looked set to make it a hat trick when he overtook Verstappen and then Bottas with about 10 minutes left in the hour-long session. But Verstappen came back out and returned to the top of the leaderboard.
Albon's car was fitted with a new chassis after he crashed heavily following a mistake on the last turn in the second practice.
Hamilton and other drivers have been complaining about the new Pirelli tires, which they are testing ahead of 2021, saying they are too heavy and Vettel calling them even worse than before.
“(It is) three kilos heavier and it's about one second slower per lap," Hamilton said. "If that's the best they can do (it's) better we stick with this (current) tire.”
The four-time F1 champion Vettel agreed with Hamilton to keep the 2020 tire for next year, rather than switch to the unpopular 2021 model.
“It will make the problems we struggle with now worse," he said.
Because of the lack of grip on the new range of tires, Verstappen joked that the championship could become “a drift challenge” if manufacturer Pirelli uses the 2021 tires as planned. “I hope they listen a bit to the drivers,” Verstappen said. “I hope we will not use them."
This is the 15th of 17 races in the coronavirus-shortened season, with another race to follow in Bahrain next Sunday before the campaign concludes in Abu Dhabi.