Verstappen takes Bahrain pole, Piastri ousted in Q1

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen has showed Red Bull remain the team to beat by leading Sergio Perez to a front row sweep in qualifying for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz were the closest challengers in third and fourth with evergreen charger Fernando Alonso fifth in what will be the 356th race of his career and first for Aston Martin.

But it will be a tough baptism for Oscar Piastri, the Australian rookie who will start from 18th on the grid in his McLaren after a disappointing first qualifying session.

Red Bull came to Bahrain as favourites after winning 17 of 22 races last year and being quick in testing but their struggle for balance, while Alonso set the practice pace, had encouraged others' dreams of a different battle.

Instead, Verstappen found the time when he needed it to deliver the perfect 51st birthday present for his father Jos with a career 21st pole.

"I hope he was watching, I'm pretty sure he was watching," said the Dutch driver, who clocked a best lap of one minute 29.708 seconds around the floodlit Sakhir circuit. Perez was 0.138 slower.

"I was actually positively surprised we were on pole after the struggles I had in practice," added the double world champion. "Normally our race car is better, so let's see."

Ferrari, runners-up last season and under the new management of Fred Vasseur, showed also that they remained in the mix despite suggestions they might have fallen back.

Sainz was fastest in the first phase of qualifying and Leclerc top in the second, with Verstappen seventh and second respectively.

"I think we were in the fight for pole, which was a good surprise to be honest," said Leclerc. "I don't know if I would have been on pole or not but it would have been close."

Mercedes qualified sixth and seventh with George Russell and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton running out of tyres for the final phase.

Alonso's Canadian teammate Lance Stroll, who broke his wrists in a cycling accident in Spain last month and missed testing, will start eighth.

"It's exactly two weeks today since my accident. I couldn't move both hands, couldn't walk. I had a broken big toe on the right foot as well," he said of his journey from hospital to top 10 on the grid.

American Logan Sargeant was the highest qualifier among the three rookies, placing his Williams 16th on the grid with teammate Alex Albon 15th.

It was a chastening afternoon for McLaren, with Piastri's more experienced teammate Lando Norris only qualifying 11th.