Sebastian Vettel takes Bahrain GP pole as Lewis Hamilton falls to ninth

Sebastian Vettel takes Bahrain GP pole as Lewis Hamilton falls to ninth
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel prepares in the pit during the third free practice at the Formula One Bahrain International Circuit. AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Lewis Hamilton will start the Bahrain Grand Prix from only ninth as his rival Sebastian Vettel stormed to pole position.

Defending champion Hamilton has been off the pace all weekend and, while he posted the fourth quickest lap in a thrill-a-minute qualifying session, he will be shunted down the order following his penalty for a gearbox change.

Kimi Raikkonen joins Vettel at the sharp end as Ferrari secured a front-row lockout with the Italian team laying down the championship gauntlet to Mercedes. Hamilton's Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was third.

Vettel was trailing Raikkonen following the opening runs in the desert, but the championship leader, who beat Hamilton at the opening race in Australia, delivered the goods when it mattered most.

Vettel finished 0.134seconds clear of Raikkonen, with Bottas marginally father back. Hamilton was 0.262secs down on Vettel's best lap.

"I was very happy that I got the second run and I got it clean," Vettel said. "The car has been excellent all weekend so far, so I am looking forward to the race.

"If the car is responding to what you want to do, it is a pleasure to drive, otherwise it is a fight. Australia was more of a fight, but we have improved here.

"I feel good now, but tomorrow is a different story and it is a long race, but the car is quick so that usually helps."

Daniel Ricciardo lines up in fifth for Red Bull, but his team-mate Max Verstappen - expected to be a contender for pole here - saw his ragged start to the new campaign continue after a 140mph shunt.

The 20-year-old, who spun in Melbourne a fortnight ago, lost control of his car on the exit of turn two, before sliding into the barrier on the opposing side of the circuit.

A handful of bleeped-out expletives ensued from underneath the furious Dutchman's helmet before revealing he was unhurt in the incident.

Indeed only his pride had taken a knock, as he stalked back to the paddock with his helmet still firmly on.

Verstappen did manage to complete a speedy lap before his crash, sparing him the indignity of propping up Sunday's grid. He will start 15th.

Ahead of Verstappen will be Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne.

This is effectively McLaren's second home race given their financial ties with the Bahraini royal family, but the guests which squeezed into the team's hospitality suite were provided with little fanfare as Alonso qualified a torrid 13th. Vandoorne was one place further back.

Their divorce from Honda power, and switch to Renault, was supposed to usher in a new dawn for Britain's most successful Formula One team, but their glories of yesteryear appear a distance memory.

Adding insult to injury, both of the Toro Rosso cars, now powered by Honda, will start ahead of Alonso and Vandoorne.

McLaren can take some comfort from their reserve driver Lando Norris's display earlier in Bahrain as he stormed to victory on his Formula Two debut.

But while Norris, the British teenager, provided hope that there may be life after Lewis, McLaren's troubles only continue to deepen.

- PA

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