By Abhishek Takle
MANAMA (Reuters) – Sebastian Vettel stormed to pole position ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen as Ferrari locked out the front row in qualifying for Sunday’s Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix.
The German, winner last year on this circuit, lapped the 5.4-km Sakhir track in a time of one minute 27.958 seconds on Saturday, edging Raikkonen by a margin of 0.143 seconds.
Reigning champions Mercedes, who were clearly fastest two weeks ago in the season-opening race in Australia, had only enough in hand to qualify on the second row of the grid.
Last year’s pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, who crashed out of qualifying in Australia, led the German marque’s charge in third.
Team mate Lewis Hamilton was an off-color fourth, 0.262 seconds off Vettel’s pace, but the Briton is carrying a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change and will start ninth.
Saturday’s pole was the 51st of Vettel’s career and third in Bahrain. The 30-year-old last started from the front at last year’s Mexican Grand Prix.
“That was quite intense,” said a relieved-looking Vettel, who ran wide over the kerbs at the final corner on his first run in the final qualifying phase.
“First run in Q3, I was very happy and then I tossed it away in the last corner. Really happy that I got the second run and got it clean.
“I stayed away from that kerb in the last corner. The car was excellent all weekend so far.”
Raikkonen gave Ferrari their first front-row lockout since last July’s Hungarian Grand Prix.
The Finn had looked a good bet for his first pole position since last year’s Monaco Grand Prix after setting the pace on Friday’s opening day of running and Saturday’s final practice.
He was on provisional pole as drivers embarked on their final runs but ran into traffic on his final flier.
“Far from ideal in the last run with the traffic but what can I do?” said the 2007 world champion.
“Tomorrow is the main thing, that is the time when we get the points.”
Daniel Ricciardo was fifth for Red Bull while his team mate Max Verstappen crashed in the opening part of qualifying, losing the car under acceleration out of the tight second corner.
The Dutchman had already set a time good enough to progress to the second part of qualifying, however, and will start 15th.
Frenchman Pierre Gasly was sixth in the Honda-powered Toro Rosso and Kevin Magnussen was seventh for Haas.
Haas, who turned heads with their speed in the Australian season opener, could not quite repeat their dream qualifying result from Melbourne with Magnussen’s team mate Romain Grosjean failing to make it past the opening 18 minutes of qualifying.
Nico Hulkenberg was eighth for Renault ahead of Force India’s Esteban Ocon and team mate Carlos Sainz.
McLaren endured a disappointing qualifying with neither Fernando Alonso nor Stoffel Vandoorne making it through to the final top-10.
Vettel snatched an opportunistic win for Ferrari in Melbourne two weeks ago, despite Mercedes clearly having the faster car.
He heads into Sunday’s race on course to become the first driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004 to open the season with consecutive wins for Ferrari.
(Editing by Alan Baldwin and Christian Radnedge)