Charles Leclerc took pole position for the opening round of the Formula One season after edging out world champion Max Verstappen – with Lewis Hamilton struggling in fifth.
Ferrari’s Leclerc beat Verstappen by 0.123 seconds in qualifying for Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, with Carlos Sainz third in the other scarlet car.
Ferrari have not won a race since the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix but have been hyped by rivals as early favourites in Formula One’s new era, featuring cars designed to radically new rules aimed at improving the racing spectacle.
"It feels good! The last two years have been incredibly difficult for the team," said Leclerc, who took the 10th Formula One pole of his career.
Sergio Perez took fourth with Hamilton next up, 0.680 seconds back. Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate George Russell finished only ninth, a further second adrift.
Hamilton arrived for the curtain raiser fearing his Mercedes machine would not be a contender for victory.
And the seven-time world champion’s concerns became reality under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Sakhir Circuit.
And while Hamilton’s Mercedes team might have dominated in recent times, winning the past eight constructors’ championships, they are behind both Ferrari and Red Bull in the pecking order.
Ferrari will be delighted to have delivered on their encouraging pre-season from, with Leclerc claiming his first pole position since last year’s Monaco Grand Prix.
Leclerc, 24, bidding to become Ferrari’s first world champion since Kimi Raikkonen triumphed for the Italian team in 2007, added: "We hoped this would be a season where we would be back at the front so I am very happy with today.
“There is definitely much more to come from this car. It is not going to be easy tomorrow but hopefully we will have a good race.”
Verstappen said: “It was all right. We have a good race car which at the end of the day is the most important thing and it is a good start.”
Valtteri Bottas finished an impressive sixth on his Alfa Romeo debut with Kevin Magnussen, who replaced the sacked Russian driver Nikita Mazepin, seventh for Haas.
Daniel Ricciardo is unlikely to look back on his first season at McLaren with too much fondness, and his second campaign started in miserable fashion.
The seven-time race winner was knocked out in Q1, and finished seven tenths slower than British driver Lando Norris in the other McLaren.
Norris qualified only 13th on a dissatisfactory Saturday in what is effectively a second home race for the Bahrain-owned team.
Over at Aston Martin, the picture was even more alarming. The team are starting the second of owner Lawrence Stroll’s five-year plan to become world champions, but Nico Hulkenberg – replacing Sebastian Vettel after the four-time drivers’ champion was ruled out with Covid – finished 17th, two places ahead of team-mate Lance Stroll.
There was better news for the returning Alexander Albon. Sidelined for a season after he was dropped by Red Bull, the London-born Albon, who has assumed friend Russell’s seat at Williams, out-qualified team-mate Nicholas Latifi by nine tenths and is set to start 14th.