Ferrari replaces Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes as Verstappen's main F1 rival

Saunders: FIA report draws line under Abu Dhabi controversy (1:49)

Nate Saunders feels Formula One now needs to move on after an FIA report says the controversial finish at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was down to 'human error'. (1:49)

SAKHIR, Bahrain -- It's official. Ferrari is back at the front of the Formula One grid.

The qualifying result confirmed the feeling which developed over preseason that the Italian team has moved back to the front of F1. It also seemed to prove that Lewis Hamilton was not bluffing when he said Mercedes, winners of the past eight F1 constructors' titles, will not be competing for wins early in the season.

Here's a look at the big talking points to come out of qualifying.

Verstappen-Leclerc promises to be thrilling

Charles Leclerc's pole position in Bahrain was Ferrari's first at the opening race of a year since 2007. It's a remarkable statistic that underlines how rarely the Italian team has started a season strong in the past two decades and could be a good omen as it was also the last year Ferrari won a drivers' title.

Ever since it dropped into the midfield pack in 2020, Ferrari has earmarked this year's regulation change as its best opportunity to return to the front. Even so, a two-year victory drought was a hard thing for Ferrari to stomach and starting the season with pole position was crucial.

"Obviously the last two years for the team have been extremely difficult," Leclerc said after the session. "After 2019 we had two very difficult years where I knew it was just a matter of time before we got back to the top because we were working well. But until you actually do it you always have the doubts, and finally this season we managed to do a car that is back to where it deserves, which is to at least be in the mix for the top positions."

But if either Ferrari driver has ambitions of title success this season, it's clear they will have to beat Max Verstappen to succeed. Other drivers could join the mix as the season progresses, but the two teams that have shown significant potential throughout preseason and into the first race weekend are Ferrari and Red Bull.

During practice, Leclerc and Verstappen looked closely matched over a single lap, but it was Red Bull who looked the most impressive over longer runs with heavy fuel. It was clear last year how tough Verstappen was to beat when he had a competitive car, so Leclerc and teammate Carlos Sainz will have to race to the absolute limit to keep Ferrari on top on Sunday.

There's also the fascinating prospect of seeing Verstappen and Leclerc do battle in similarly matched machinery. The two drivers have been earmarked as the top talents of their generation since they raced each other in karting, and their rivalry briefly ignited in 2019 at the Austrian Grand Prix when Verstappen collided with Leclerc three laps from the end to take the lead and secure victory.

It would be unwise to take one qualifying result and extrapolate it across 23 upcoming races, but the early signs are that the 2022 season will be a thrilling one to watch.

Is Mercedes now in the midfield?

Lewis Hamilton will start the Bahrain Grand Prix from fifth on the grid. That may not sound particularly impressive for a seven-time world champion, but given the performance of his new car it was the best he could hope for.

"I'm generally really happy today," Hamilton said after the session. "Given how we've been the last few weeks, the struggles we've had and the problems we've had with the car, it's a bit of a nightmare to drive. We've just kept our heads down, kept working away and I'm proud of everyone for just staying positive.

"To get fifth in quali, those guys ahead of us are in another league. So I'm generally happy with where we are. It's not the front row, but we will make improvements and do the best we can tomorrow."

Unlike previous years when Mercedes struggled during preseason testing, there was no quick fix to make the car competitive ahead of the first race this season. There is still hope that the true performance of the 2022 car is yet to be unlocked, but Ferrari and Red Bull will provide rapidly moving targets as they also make improvements over the coming rounds.

The team admits the addition of a significant upgrade at the second of the two preseason tests complicated matters, but it remains committed to pursuing the development avenue it's on and unlocking the true potential of the car.

"We stumbled upon circumstances that made us realise we had an issue much too late," team principal Toto Wolff said. "We had a solid first test, but knew that it was probably not entirely relevant because we would be bringing a massive upgrade to the test in Bahrain and therefore maybe you are looking at the results and data from the first test not in the way you should be.

"That is why when we put the car on the road for the first time in Bahrain we were really surprised with the problems we had, and it took a while to understand them and we are in the process of dialling them out. But dialling them out means applying the science, scrutiny and hard work; it is all physics, it's not mystics."

Bottas outqualifies Russell

Valtteri Bottas is used to lining up alongside Hamilton on the grid, but he didn't expect to be doing it at his first race with Alfa Romeo. A remarkable lap secured him sixth place on the grid, one place behind Hamilton and three places ahead of the man who replaced him at Mercedes, George Russell.

"We thought it would be possible to get into Q3, but now seeing that in reality we got P6, this is still like a bit of a surprise -- and I think it is for everyone," Bottas said. "I think this is really important for the team because obviously Alfa Romeo is coming out of two pretty tricky years and now seeing a bit of light is good, so it's important to see what is possible."

A quick trade of glances between the two ex-teammates but a smile on their faces.

"We're starting side by side, it's pretty cool," he added. "I just saw him and we're just smiling at it. It should be fun."

-- Laurence Edmondson

K-Mag stars on return

Kevin Magnussen didn't think he'd ever race in F1 again at the start of the month. Now he's getting ready to start the Bahrain Grand Prix from the seventh position.

It was already a good comeback tale and it keeps getting better.

Magnussen, who missed the 2020 season after being dropped by the team, looked like he had never been away. The Danish driver has always been a very strong qualifier and he clearly lost none of that in his year racing in other series.

Haas set some headline-grabbing times in the Bahrain test but there were still doubts about how good the American team, which finished at the bottom last year with zero points, would actually be. Magnussen's pace suggests it is right at the front end of the midfield -- he looked closely matched to Mercedes for much of the session.

Magnussen, who posted a photo of himself and his baby daughter in the cockpit earlier in the weekend, was still trying to process everything on Saturday evening.

"It's so strange, all of this," he said. "I had a whole year, basically 15 months trying to get used to the fact that Formula 1 wasn't going to be part of my life anymore.

"I kind of got to a good place with that, was happy with the opportunity that I had in Formula 1 and was able to look back and be grateful and be happy about all that but still be excited about the future, having a kid and still being a racing driver.

"But then suddenly this completely happened, this opportunity with Haas, suddenly back again in Formula 1 -- in this paddock with my little daughter -- it's so strange all of it. And now back in Q3 and hoping for points tomorrow, it's kind of crazy."

Magnussen's teammate, Mick Schumacher, qualified a career-best 12th. It's only one qualifying session for one race, but the early signs are very, very encouraging for F1's scrappy American outfit. This could be the fairytale story of the season.

What on earth happened to McLaren?

McLaren got out of the blocks as well as anyone this year and looked pretty impressive at the first preseason test in Spain. A very average second test led to questions about which McLaren would show up for the race.

We got our answer on Saturday, with Lando Norris only just dragging his car through to Q2, while Daniel Ricciardo did not even make it past the first qualifying segment at all.

Like Ferrari, McLaren was hoping to use this regulation change to propel itself back to the front of the order of F1 but this felt like a hammer blow to its chances of being competitive this season.

Let's not get carried away on the doom and gloom just yet, though.

Ricciardo missed last week's test with COVID and seems to be getting back up to speed and making up for lost car time.

Norris seemed calm in his media interviews after qualifying and said the layout of the Bahrain International Circuit just does not suit McLaren's new car.

When asked how he explained the downturn in form since the first test, Norris said: "Just the type of track, quite simply.

"Maybe we just showed a bit more performance than what we actually had. Or other people didn't show as much as what they had. Other people have bought updates and so on. We have as well but maybe they've just bought bigger ones and better ones.

"Tough to say.

"Barcelona is more biased towards medium and high speed, this one is more biased towards slow speed corners and that's where we're struggling a lot. The medium and high speed corners is where we're performing a little bit better. It's just more weaknesses here for us and we're already learning where those strengths and weaknesses are.

"I don't think it caught us out too much or we were too surprised. Of course people just looking at our lap time will be surprised from where we were in Barcelona to Bahrain, but not a big shock for us. Just a tough one. Never want to be P13, you always want to be in Q3 and so on. It's just not where we're at right now."

Whatever the story and however big the deficit to the front really is, McLaren seems to be facing an uphill battle already this year if it wants to even come close to challenging for victories.

-- Nate Saunders