By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) - Red Bull's Max Verstappen set himself up as favourite for the first race of the Formula One season after seizing a perfect pole position in Bahrain on Saturday.
The Dutch 23-year-old put in a stunning final flying lap as he denied champions Mercedes the top slot in the season-opener for the first time in the V6 turbo hybrid era that started in 2014.
"Well done Max, that's the perfect start," said a jubilant team boss Christian Horner over the car radio as the mechanics celebrated.
Verstappen's pole time of one minute 28.997 seconds was 0.388 quicker than Mercedes' seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton, who had been only 0.023 behind after his first effort in the final phase.
"I absolutely gave it everything I had but unfortunately it wasn't good enough," said Hamilton. "I got absolutely everything I could from the car."
Hamilton's Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas, winner of the last two season-opening races held in Australia and Austria, will start third.
The pole was the fourth of Verstappen's career and second in a row after the 2020 season-ender in Abu Dhabi, which he went on to win.
It continued an impeccable start to the year, with the Red Bull driver quickest in pre-season testing and all three practice sessions in Bahrain.
"So far the car has been working really well and it's just been really enjoyable to drive," said Verstappen. "It all worked out perfectly in qualifying."
Sunday's floodlit race at Sakhir, hosting the opener instead of Australia which has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be the first time Verstappen has lined up on pole with Hamilton alongside.
"The fight is on," commented Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc qualified fourth, but on softer tyres than those ahead on mediums, with AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly fifth.
"We know now where we are in terms of qualy pace and it’s a pleasant surprise," said the Monegasque.
McLaren's Daniel Ricciardo will line up sixth for the Australian's first race with the team since he moved from Renault.
"I don’t want to do somersaults or backflips just yet, but it’s certainly a nice start for the campaign and I think we’ll do alright tomorrow," he said.
Lando Norris qualified seventh for McLaren, ahead of former team mate Carlos Sainz who will be making his Ferrari race debut on Sunday.
Sainz suffered a scare when his car switched off on track in the first phase but he got it going again and made it back to the pits.
Spain's two-times world champion Fernando Alonso, 39, will start his first race since 2018 in ninth place with Renault-owned Alpine and looked like he had not been away.
The big losers were four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel, now at Aston Martin after leaving Ferrari, who qualified 18th and Verstappen's team mate Sergio Perez who managed only 11th on the grid.
"He’s only had 1.5 days of testing and everything is very new for him in terms of how the car feels, but he will be competitive in the race tomorrow and should not be counted out," said Red Bull boss Christian Horner of Perez.
Vettel had to slow for yellow flags waved after Russian rookie Nikita Mazepin spun and was summoned to stewards on Sunday.
"We would have hoped for a better start but it is what it is," he said. "For sure I'm upset and angry but it wasn't our fault."
Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda qualified 13th for AlphaTauri but raised plenty of excitement when he lapped second fastest in the opening phase.
At the back, Michael Schumacher's son Mick will start 19th for Haas, one spot ahead of team mate Mazepin.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, Editing by Hugh Lawson and Pritha Sarkar)