Defending double world champion Max Verstappen claimed pole position on Saturday as Red Bull locked out the front row of the grid for Sunday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

After struggling for balance in practice, the Dutchman and his Mexican team-mate Sergio Perez rediscovered their best form when it mattered to ease clear of their rivals led by Ferrari.

It was Red Bull’s first front row lockout in Bahrain, a track where they have not won since 2013, when the recently-retired Sebastian Vettel was triumphant.

The 25-year-old Verstappen’s success brought him his 21st career pole and made a perfect gift to his father Jos on his 51st birthday.

Last year’s pole-sitter and race winner Charles Leclerc was third for Ferrari ahead of team-mate Carlos Sainz, the Monegasque driver choosing to save a set of tyres rather than make a second final flying run.

Two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who was fastest in second and third practice, was unable to repeat that form, but took fifth on the grid for Aston Martin in his first outing for the team since moving from Alpine to replace Vettel.

The Mercedes of George Russell and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton were sixth and seventh ahead of Lance Stroll in the second Aston Martin, Esteban Ocon of Alpine and Haas’s Nico Hulkenberg.

“That’s a very pleasant surprise,” said Verstappen. “I didn’t expect to be on pole after the last few days here.”

He will be seeking his first victory at the Bahrain International Circuit on Sunday at the 10th attempt and to record a first victory in a season-opening race.

Leclerc said: “I felt it was better to start from third but have a new set of tyres than to fight for pole and start maybe from the front row on old tyres.”

“It was very close, Aston Martin was very quick, Mercedes was very quick. It is looking good for the future and makes Formula 1 much more exciting,” he added.

Cooler conditions

After earlier hot conditions with a track temperature of more than 40 degrees for FP3, it was down to 29.4 and an air temperature of 24.5 shortly before qualifying began at Sakhir, a former camel farm in the desert.

The two Alpha Tauri cars were the first out, Yuki Tsunoda leading rookie Nyck de Vries on track, followed by Ferrari.

Almost immediately, Leclerc, who won last year’s race from pole, locked up at Turn One after losing part of his front right wheel arch and the session was red-flagged for seven minutes to collect debris.

A frantic spell saw Stroll, Leclerc, Russell and Alonso top the times before Sainz clocked the first sub 1:31 lap leaving the top four separated by less than two-tenths after their first runs.

It remained that way on the second runs with Sainz quickest ahead of Russell, Leclerc and Alonso while, at the back, American rookie Logan Sargeant just missed the cut in 16th for Williams.

He went out along with a disappointed Pierre Gasly of Alpine, Kevin Magnussen of Haas, rookie Oscar Piastri of McLaren and De Vries who, though 20th was only 1.123 seconds off Sainz’s lap time – suggesting a close contest is in prospect.

As Hulkenberg led the way for Q2 in his Haas, Gasly’s best lap was deleted, meaning he will start from 20th and last place in Sunday’s race.

In Q2, Red Bull finally delivered their expected pace and Verstappen and Perez topped the first run times ahead of the rejuvenated Mercedes of Hamilton and Russell.

The Red Bulls opted not to take a second run as Leclerc went quickest ahead of Verstappen, Russell and Hamilton with Hulkenberg, back with Haas to replace Mick Schumacher, progressing in eighth.

Lando Norris of McLaren, Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu, Tsunoda and Williams’ Alex Albon missed out on the top ten shootout.

Remarkably, Verstappen, Russell, Hamilton and Sainz were separated by just 0.012 seconds in Q2 – another sign of how tight a contest may lie ahead – but on his first run in Q3 the Dutchman clocked 1:29.897 to set the pace.

That took him clear of Leclerc by a tenth and he trimmed that to 1:29.708 to claim pole ahead of team-mate Perez, leaving Ferrari to fill the second row and Alonso qualifying fifth.