Verstappen on pole for F1 season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix overshadowed by scrutiny of team boss

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SAKHIR, Bahrain — Formula 1 champion Max Verstappen qualified on the pole Friday for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix as scrutiny of Red Bull’s boss overshadows the start of the new season.

Verstappen, who won the title in each of the last three seasons, was fastest for Red Bull by .228 seconds over Charles Leclerc of Ferrari. George Russell was third for Mercedes, while Carlos Sainz Jr. of Ferrari was fourth. The second Red Bull of Sergio Perez qualified fifth.

“I think in the race it’s going to be close as well. We do look good in the race and that’s of course the most important, but we’ll see,” Verstappen said. “I’m confident we can have a strong race.”

Verstappen won 19 out of 22 races last year — Perez won twice — but the relatively close qualifying times indicated other teams may have closed the gap on Red Bull. Leclerc set a time in the second of the three qualifying sessions which turned out to be faster than Verstappen’s eventual time for pole in the third session.

“I’m confident we did a step forward but we have to wait and see tomorrow how much of a step forward we did. We think that Red Bull is still ahead by quite a bit in the race,” Leclerc said.

Russell said he still believes Verstappen is well ahead of the rest.

“I think it’ll be a close fight between everybody other than Max,” he said.

It is the 33rd pole of Verstappen’s career, and he won 12 of 22 last season. He is seeking his eighth consecutive win dating to last season.

But as the season begins, the focus has been on an investigation into Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.

On Wednesday, the team’s parent company dismissed a complaint of alleged misconduct by Horner toward a team employee. A day later during practice for the Bahrain Grand Prix, a file alleged to contain evidence presented against Horner was emailed to nearly 200 people in the F1 paddock, including Liberty Media, F1, the FIA, the other nine team principals and multiple media outlets.

The authenticity of the files has not been verified by The Associated Press; the file came from a generic email account.

Horner has denied wrongdoing and said in a statement issued Thursday that he would not “comment on anonymous speculation.” Earlier Friday, he was absent from the Red Bull pit for at least part of the third practice session.

The Bahrain Grand Prix is being held on Saturday because the following race in Saudi Arabia next week has been moved up a day to avoid a clash with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The rules require a full week between races.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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