Lewis Hamilton admitted he was relieved to be almost four tenths down to Max Verstappen in Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying – as he thought the margin might be “double”.
All of the conclusions from pre-season testing about Red Bull being faster than Mercedes at the start of this 2021 campaign were borne out as Verstappen comfortably took pole position for the opening race.
But Mercedes, the consecutive seven-time World Champions, showed they will be well and truly in the fight as Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas qualified second and third – with Red Bull new boy Sergio Perez not even making it through to Q3.
Yet again, like throughout last year, Verstappen will be battling the Mercedes duo single-handedly, at least in the early stages of the race.
However, the Dutchman will be in pole position and that is exactly what Hamilton expected – indeed, he was surprised to be so competitive on lap time compared to what he had anticipated.
“It’s definitely closer than we expected,” said the Briton, who is aiming for an eighth consecutive Drivers’ world title this year, quoted by Motorsport Week. “I think this is a really good step forward for us coming into this weekend.
“I think we thought it would be double the gap you see today and so that’s down to some really fantastic work from the men and women back at the factory.”
The competition we've been waiting for. 👊 This is going to be a special season, Team! pic.twitter.com/S3UxRnqz1S
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) March 27, 2021
Hamilton expects Verstappen to maintain superior speed in race specification.
“I think they’ve got the pace and with the gap they had today, usually they carry that into the race,” he said.
“They are very strong in race conditions. I’d like to think we can close that up a bit but I think they still have at least two tenths in hand.
“We knew from day one on track that the Red Bull was faster than us and we knew we had a bit of an uphill battle to climb, so I’m just proud of everyone’s efforts.”
Bottas revealed he had been compromised somewhat by not having an extra set of tyres for Q3 in comparison to Verstappen and Hamilton.
“The main thing for me was I only had one new set for tyres for Q3 and Lewis and Max had two, so then you can always gain a little bit more consistency, but that’s because the first run in Q1 wasn’t good enough,” said the Finn.
“But all weekend I’ve really been focusing on race pace, that’s been the main topic the whole weekend.
“That’s been the biggest issue for me here in the past, so higher focus on race pace and I hope it will be the case tomorrow that it helps.”