Double world champion Max Verstappen set the first exclamation mark of the new Formula 1 season on his father Jos’ birthday. The Red Bull driver raced to pole position on Saturday at the Bahrain International Circuit. The 25-year-old Dutchman improved his own best time on the last lap of qualifying and is ahead of his teammate Sergio Perez in the opening Grand Prix on Sunday (4 p.m. CET / Sky). For Verstappen, on his father’s 51st birthday, it was the 21st pole position of his career.

“I’m happy to be on pole,” said Max Verstappen, who had dominated last season almost at will. “But it was a tough start to the weekend, I didn’t find my rhythm until today either.” But when he did discover it, the competition couldn’t get past him.

Last year’s winner Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari raced to third place. “We’re still a bit behind in terms of race pace compared to Red Bull,” said the Monegasque, who did not intervene at the end of qualifying to save a set of tires for the race. Formula 1 returnee Nico Hülkenberg showed an excellent starting position in the Haas in tenth place.

With a fast last lap, the Rhinelander avoided retirement in sixth place on the first lap – in contrast to his teammate Kevin Magnussen. The Dane missed out on being 17th. Hulkenberg then proved that he had no problems adjusting to his new team and secured a top ten finish.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso continued the Aston Martin surge to finish fifth. His teammate Lance Stroll raced into eighth place. The Canadian’s performance is impressive. After a cycling accident, he missed testing because he fractured his right wrist and sprained his left. An operation including screwing later, however, he sat in the car and fought his way to the third knockout round. Mama Claire-Anne applauded in the garage.

Record world champion Lewis Hamilton did not get past seventh place with his stubborn Mercedes. “The car is not easy to drive. There’s no reason to be euphoric because we’re just not fast enough,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff admitted before qualifying.

Red flags in the first knockout round: Leclerc’s Ferrari lost smaller vehicle parts when touching down on the asphalt. In order to clear away the rubble, the unit was temporarily stopped. “Let me know if everything is okay with the car,” radioed last year’s winner Leclerc to the pits. In the garage, the mechanics repaired the Monegasque’s damaged company car.

As things went on, it even seemed at first as if Alonso could fight for one of the top three places. “For ten years he was in the back of no man’s land and now he’s fighting for top three positions again. He’s a real gladiator who won’t let anything burn up front,” said Sky expert Nico Rosberg appreciatively of the 41-year-old oldie, who missed out on a place among the top three drivers.