It was just one qualifying lap, a spark in the desert night, but it could be the flame that lights up the whole Formula One season.
Max Verstappen conjured a brilliant flash of precision and nerve, maximising the pace of his Red Bull to turn the timing screens purple — denoting the fastest times — for all three sectors of the Sakhir International Circuit that today hosts the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Sir Lewis Hamilton, chasing an unprecedented eighth world title, was second quickest, 0.388sec off the pace, a deficit that prompted the British driver to cry foul, believing the rules have been deliberately altered to thwart him and Mercedes.
Max Verstappen has drawn first blood in his battle with Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton
The Red Bull star was fastest in practice and testing and translated that form in qualifying
The Dutchman celebrates with his Red Bull team after getting his season off to a strong start
Tough luck, champ. This season’s regulations are the same for everyone from the off. And, if the mandated changes to the car’s floor — which impact downforce — hamper Mercedes more than Red Bull, so be it.
As for Verstappen you could see how much it meant to him to have blazed his way to the front of the grid, confirming the suggestions he barely dared believe from pre-season testing that his team may finally have the measure of the all-conquering Silver Arrows.
The possible fun of the year ahead comes down to Verstappen making a fight of it because Valtteri Bottas, a further two-tenths back in the second Mercedes, is destined always to be the hind legs of Hamilton’s horse.
Shame on Mercedes for their mind-numbing decision to keep Bottas on for this season when overwhelming evidence points to his never having enough about him to offer an internal threat to the top dog.
Verstappen, 23, went almost four-tenths faster than the world champion to take pole
For the sake of the sport they should have paired Hamilton with George Russell, the 23-year-old Williams driver who so dazzled in his one substitute appearance in the Mercedes last December.
Here in the desert was Sir Jackie Stewart, the three-time world champion and motor racing’s elder statesman. ‘Even giant oaks fall,’ he ventured on the possibility of Mercedes being restrained.
‘What the sport needs, and TV needs, is not two cars going against each other, but three or four or more, cars. Max is a good driver. You can see that from three miles away.’
Hamilton conceded that he could not get any more out of his car after Saturday’s qualifying
Verstappen, the man of the moment, in windy conditions, was cautiously optimistic, saying: ‘It is not a relief. This is what you aim for. The last few years it hasn’t materialised.
‘The regulations have not changed a lot and we knew what our weaknesses were last year. We have addressed them and we are happy with that. It is a great start but there are no guarantees for the future.’
Hamilton said he had given his all but admitted even that would never be enough against the superior Red Bull.
He added: ‘We want to be first, but we knew it would be a challenge from day one in testing. We knew they were faster than us and we know we have an uphill slope to climb. It is no secret that the changes have, of course, been implemented to peg us back.
‘We had the changes last year to our engine (a boost function) to do the same thing. But that is OK. ‘We love a challenge. We don’t look down at these things but work hard to do the best we can, and that is what we will do.’
Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez fell out in Q2. A touch slower over the weekend, he failed to deliver the required speed when shod on medium tyres at the crunch moment yesterday.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel had a nightmare start with Aston Martin, qualifying in 18th
The Mexican qualified 11th and let out an expletive of obvious disappointment as he pulled into the pits, the bleep function on overdrive. That setback, though, was nothing compared to Sebastian Vettel’s baptism of fire at Aston Martin, the German qualifying a lowly 18th, eight-tenths behind his team-mate Lance Stroll.
Young Stroll’s detractors say, a little unfairly, that he is only in the race seat because his father Lawrence owns the team, yet it was the spoilt rich kid who outperformed the quadruple world champion. Vettel came to Aston to rekindle his career after six increasingly dismal seasons at Ferrari — and then came this awfully dispiriting start.
There was a suggestion that Vettel was hampered by a yellow flag on his final lap, but he should never have been in such jeopardy and, in truth, he simply failed to get the job done.
Russell will start 15th, having been unable to find anything special in Q2 to elevate him up the grid. Still, though, a decent showing as he tries to convince Mercedes that he is worth a permanent call-up.
Fernando Alonso returned after two seasons out with a metal plate in his jaw after recently being knocked off his bike while training. Aged 39, the Spaniard is one of four world champions on the 2021 grid — he qualified ninth for Alpine — an added ingredient in this season of rich promise.
Verstappen’s new Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez failed to make it to Q3, qualifying in 11th
Re-live Sportsmail’s live coverage of Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying brought to you by OLLIE LEWIS.