MANAMA (Reuters) - Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took his first Formula One pole position with a stunning display under the floodlights in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix on Saturday.
Calm and composed ahead of only his second race for the Italian team, the 21-year-old Monegasque was 0.294 seconds clear of last year’s pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel who secured Ferrari’s front row lockout.
Five-times world champion Lewis Hamilton was Ferrari’s closest challenger in third for Mercedes, but the Briton was still 0.324 seconds off the pace with team mate Valtteri Bottas alongside in fourth.
“Thanks guys! The car was amazing,” Leclerc said over the team radio after his track record time of one minute 27.866 seconds.
“Today is a good beginning, I’ll try and finish the job tomorrow,” added the youngster, who was fastest in two of the three practice sessions before qualifying and can take his first F1 win on Sunday.
Leclerc, a rookie with Sauber (now Alfa Romeo) last season after winning the Formula Two title, is the second youngest pole sitter of all time. Vettel did it at 21 years and 73 days with Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008.
He will also be the first driver from Monaco to start at the front since the world championship started in 1950.
Ferrari, mysteriously off the pace at the season-opening race in Australia won by Bottas, were in a league of their own and restored to their position as race favourites.
The pole was the team’s first since September’s Italian Grand Prix, when they also swept the front row but lost to Hamilton in the race.
“We have been focused on ourselves, we worked hard to understand the issues and I think the result of today somehow gives us confidence,” team boss Mattia Binotto told Sky Sports television.
“This is great for the team, great for him. It will not be his last one.”
Vettel, who has more poles in Bahrain than any other driver, could put in only one run in the final pole-position shootout as the four times champion had to run twice in qualifying’s second phase after being held up by traffic.
That forced the German to leave a bit of a margin in the fight for pole.
“Maybe I was a bit shy in the second sector,” said the 31-year-old. “But in the end I think Charles did a very good job today, and he deserves to be on pole.”
Hamilton said there was still plenty to fight for.
“They’ve shown incredible pace,” said the Briton. “But it doesn’t mean they can’t be beaten. We’re going to work at it. We’ll just keep our heads down and try and see what happens.”
Behind the top four, Max Verstappen qualified fifth for Red Bull ahead of Kevin Magnussen in the Haas, McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Romain Grosjean, also for Haas.
Grosjean was later handed a three place drop for impeding McLaren’s British rookie Lando Norris in the first phase, lifting Kimi Raikkonen to eighth for Alfa Romeo and Norris to ninth.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo completed the top 10 for Renault, thanks to Grosjean’s penalty, with Thailand’s Alexander Albon 12th for Toro Rosso.
Ricciardo’s German team mate Nico Hulkenberg, having been impressive all weekend, was a surprise early casualty and will line up 17th.
Fallen champions Williams unsurprisingly propped up the timesheets with rookie George Russell edging out experienced Pole Robert Kubica.
Editing by Alan Baldwin/Christian Radnedge/Pritha Sarkar