Max Verstappen has cast further doubt over his Red Bull future after suggesting that he will quit Formula One’s dominant team if motorsport adviser Helmut Marko is forced out.

The PA news agency understands 80-year-old Austrian Marko, an instrumental figure in Verstappen’s career, faces a Red Bull investigation following the probe into claims of “inappropriate behaviour” against Christian Horner.

Horner’s female accuser was suspended earlier this week as a direct result of Red Bull’s inquiry which exonerated the 50-year-old team principal.

Marko is employed by the F1 team’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH. Asked if he could be suspended following Saturday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, he told Austrian broadcaster ORF: “Ultimately, I’ll decide for myself what I do. The theoretical possibility always exists.”

PA has approached Red Bull Racing for comment.

Red Bull’s three-time reigning world champion Verstappen, speaking after qualifying on pole for Saturday’s race in Jeddah, said: “I have a lot of respect for Helmut, and what we have achieved together.

“It goes very far. My loyalty to him is very big, and I have always expressed this to everyone within the team, everyone high up, that he is an important part in my decision-making for the future.

“It is very important that he stays. I feel like if such an important pillar falls away, and I have told the team this, that it is not good for my situation as well.

“Helmut built this team together with (Red Bull’s late owner and founder) Dietrich (Mateschitz) from day one, and he’s always been very loyal to the team.

“It is very important that you give the man a lot of respect for what he has done, and that comes back to loyalty and integrity, so it is important that he stays.”

Verstappen did not mention Horner’s name as he defended Marko.

Horner, team principal at Red Bull since 2005, said on Thursday he is certain Verstappen will see out his long-term contract with Red Bull, despite the ongoing controversy.

Verstappen’s father, Jos, claimed Red Bull will “explode” if Horner remained in his role.

Verstappen, whose deal runs until 2028, has been linked with a move to Mercedes to replace Lewis Hamilton next season. Hamilton said earlier this week that the 26-year-old Dutchman is on Mercedes’ “list”.

Max Verstappen hailed the “incredible” Ferrari stand-in Ollie Bearman after the British teenager qualified 11th for his shock Formula One debut in Saudi Arabia.

Bearman, 18 years, 10 months and one day when the lights go out for Saturday’s 50-lap race in Jeddah, was thrown into the deep end following a dramatic late call-up for Carlos Sainz, who was hospitalised with appendicitis.

But the Essex teenager – with just one hour of practice under his belt, and having never driven an F1 machine at night – came within 0.036 seconds of toppling Lewis Hamilton and progressing to the final phase of qualifying.

Verstappen put Red Bull’s continued off-track woes to one side by taking pole position, with Charles Leclerc second, three tenths back, and Sergio Perez third. Hamilton qualified eighth.

But Bearman, who will become the second youngest driver to start an F1 race, stole the show. And Verstappen, 17 when he made his debut nine years ago, led the tributes.

“What Ollie has done has been very, very impressive,” said Verstappen.

“I watched his first few laps in practice, because that is where you can judge if someone is comfortable in the car, and by lap two or three I thought ‘that is a strong start’, and to be 11th, and only six tenths off pole at the time, is more than you could have asked for. He he has done an incredible job.”

Probably to Christian Horner’s relief, all eyes were off Red Bull and on Ferrari as Bearman followed in the footsteps of Britain’s first F1 champion Mike Hawthorn and John Surtees – the only man to win a world title on two and four wheels – when he rolled out of the Italian team’s garage.

He will be the 12th British driver to race for Ferrari – and the first Englishman since Nigel Mansell in 1990.

Bearman was just 18 months old when Hamilton made his debut in 2007, and he was not even born when Fernando Alonso entered his first F1 race.

But in Jeddah on Friday, Bearman took to the same track as the men who share nine world championships between them. And, remarkably, he came within a hair’s breadth of beating Hamilton.

Forced to abort his first run in Q2, Bearman returned to the fastest street circuit on the calendar and hauled his Ferrari into 11th. He needed to be 10th to make it into Q3.

With the clock ticking down, Bearman geared up for his final run, and rode his Ferrari on rails in a valiant attempt to force his way through. His father David, the millionaire founder and chief executive of an insurance company, was living every minute of his son’s adventure at the back of the Ferrari garage.

Hamilton, failing to improve, afforded Bearman a chance to beat him, only to come up agonisingly short. Berman finished less than six tenths behind Leclerc in the other scarlet machine.

“That was a messy session,” said a critical Bearman over the radio. “Sorry about that.”

But when he faced the media, his smile lit up the night sky.

“I didn’t have time to get nervous or to overthink it,” he said. “I was focused on what to do and didn’t have time to think about the gravity of the situation and that was probably a good thing.

“On Monday, I will feel it and I will be quite proud. I am sure when I step back, I will pinch myself.

“My phone is going crazy but I will have a look at it tonight.”

Following four victories in his rookie Formula Two season – the feeder series to F1 – Bearman was thrust into the spotlight in Mexico City last October, eclipsing Lando Norris as the sport’s youngest Briton to take part in a practice session, when he drove for Haas.

He was handed a second practice run-out in Abu Dhabi a month later. On Saturday, he will surpass Norris – who was 19 years, four months and four days when he made his debut in Australia in 2019 – as the youngest British driver to start a Grand Prix.

“The stars have aligned,” added Bearman. “It has been such a quick progression in my career.

“Three years ago I was still in Formula Four and I only did my first F1 test in October so it has been a really quick progression and to make my F1 debut in red is special. Hopefully it is a sign of things to come.

“There is a lot of analysis to go through tonight – things like starts and pit-stop procedures that I have not had time to work on – so it will be a busy evening but hopefully I will get eight hours of sleep in.”

Teenager Ollie Bearman celebrated becoming the youngest British driver in Formula One history by qualifying 11th in his Ferrari for Saturday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Bearman, 18 years and 10 months to the day, was thrown into the deepest of ends as a last-minute stand-in for Carlos Sainz, who was hospitalised with appendicitis.

But the Essex teenager, with just one hour of practice under his belt, and having never driven an F1 machine at night, came within 0.036 seconds of toppling Lewis Hamilton and progressing to Q3.

Max Verstappen put Red Bull’s continued off-track woes to one side by taking pole position, with Charles Leclerc second, three tenths back, and Sergio Perez third.

Fernando Alonso took fourth, with George Russell and Hamilton seventh and eighth respectively for Mercedes. Hamilton was nearly one second slower than Verstappen.

Probably to Christian Horner’s relief, all eyes were off Red Bull and on Ferrari as Bearman followed in the footsteps of Britain’s first F1 champion Mike Hawthorn, and John Surtees – the only man to win a world title on two and four wheels.

He is the 12th British driver to race for Ferrari – and the first Englishman since Nigel Mansell in 1990. Lewis Hamilton will become the 13th next year.

Bearman was just 18 months old when Hamilton made his debut in 2007, and was not even born when Fernando Alonso entered his first F1 race.

But here in Jeddah on Friday, Bearman took to the same asphalt as the men who share nine world championships between them. And, remarkably, he came within a hair’s breadth of beating Hamilton.

Forced to abort his first run in Q2, Bearman returned to the track and hauled his Ferrari into 11th. He needed to be 10th to make it into Q3.

With the clock ticking down, Bearman geared up for his final run, and rode his Ferrari on rails in a valiant attempt to force his way through. His father David, the millionaire founder and CEO of the (re)insurance Aventum Group, was living every minute of his teenage son’s adventure at the back of the Ferrari garage.

Hamilton, failing to improve, afforded Bearman, 21 years the Mercedes’ man’ junior, a chance to beat him, only to come up agonisingly short. The Ferrari junior finished less than six tenths behind Leclerc – a commendable effort – in the other scarlet machine.

“That was a messy session,” said Bearman over the radio. “Sorry about that.”

Raised in Chelmsford, and schooled at King Edward VI Grammar, Bearman joined Ferrari’s driver academy, aged only 16, after he won both the German and Italian Formula Four championships.

He quit school – despite initial resistance from his mother, Terri – left the family home in Chelmsford and moved to Modena, a dozen miles north of Ferrari’s headquarters in northern Italy.

Following four victories in his rookie Formula Two season – the feeder series to F1 – Bearman was thrust into the spotlight in Mexico City last October, eclipsing Lando Norris as the sport’s youngest Brit to take part in a practice session.

And, on Saturday, he will surpass Norris, who was 19 years, four months and four days when he made his debut in Australia in 2019, as the youngest British driver to start a Grand Prix.

Norris will line up in sixth for Saturday’s 50-lap race, and although the unstoppable Verstappen took his second pole in as many races, the night belonged to Bearman.

Christian Horner said he is certain Max Verstappen will see out his contract with Red Bull, despite the ongoing controversy at Formula One’s world championship winning team.

Horner also insisted it is in “everybody’s collective interest to focus on the future” after Verstappen’s father, Jos, claimed Red Bull will “explode” if Horner remained in his role.

Verstappen, who won last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, has been linked with a shock move to Mercedes to replace Lewis Hamilton next season.

Hamilton said on Wednesday that the 26-year-old Dutch driver is on Mercedes’ “list”.

But when asked if he expected Verstappen to see out the remainder of his contract with Red Bull, which runs until 2028, Horner said: “I’m certain that he will. I mean, he’s got a great team around him, he’s got great faith in that team, and we’ve achieved an awful lot together.

“He’s committed to an agreement until 2028, and from a team side, and from Max’s side, we’re determined to build on the success that we’ve achieved already.

“His 55 victories have all come in Red Bull Racing cars and we are determined to build on that and add more wins in the future.”

Verstappen finished first in the opening practice session for this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso topping the time sheets in the day’s concluding running.

George Russell was second with Lewis Hamilton eighth in the other Mercedes.

Verstappen ended the day in third, three tenths back from Alonso but such is the superiority of his Red Bull machine he remains the favourite to extend his winning run here on Saturday.

Verstappen Snr is absent from the second round of the championship as he competes in a Belgian rally.

Following his son’s victory in Bahrain, he said: “There is tension here while he (Horner) remains in position.

“The team is in danger of being torn apart. It can’t go on the way it is. It will explode. He is playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems.”

Horner held clear-the-air talks with Verstappen’s manager Raymond Vermeulen a day after Verstappen Snr’s comments were published in the Mail on Sunday.

But Horner, 50, hinted he has not spoken to his star driver’s father since he was made aware of the incendiary remarks.

Horner continued: “I spoke to Jos following the grand prix and obviously congratulated him on his son’s performance. And I think it’s in everybody’s interest, collectively, that we’ve agreed to move on, to focus on the future.

“We both have a vested interest in his son, to provide the best cars for him and to get the best out of him, and he’s started the season in the best possible way. He’s an outstanding talent and hopefully we can continue to provide him with a very competitive car.”

Max Verstappen followed up his season-opening victory in Bahrain by posting the fastest time in first practice for this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Despite the continued controversy surrounding Verstappen, Christian Horner and the Red Bull team, the Dutch driver saw off Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso by 0.186 seconds in the opening running at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

Sergio Perez finished third in the other Red Bull, with George Russell fourth. His Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton finished ninth.

Verstappen opened up his championship defence with an emphatic victory in Bahrain last weekend.

Following the win, Verstappen’s father, Jos, claimed Red Bull could “explode” if Horner, who was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour” remains in his role.

It emerged here as practice got under way that Horner’s accuser has been suspended on full pay. Horner was exonerated last week and has always denied the claims.

However, Verstappen was able to put Red Bull’s off-track troubles to one side with an impressive display which will see him head into the weekend as the firm favourite to land yet another win.

Mercedes said an engine cooling problem contributed to their underwhelming display in Bahrain with Russell and Hamilton finishing fifth and seventh respectively.

Russell finished 0.280 sec behind Verstappen with Hamilton, 0.577 sec back.

The seven-time world champion’s future team Ferrari took fifth and sixth, with Charles Leclerc heading Carlos Sainz. Lando Norris was seventh for McLaren.

Horner is due to speak in a scheduled FIA press conference at 6:30 pm local time (3:30pm GMT) before the day’s concluding session begins at 8pm (5pm GMT).

Lewis Hamilton believes that Max Verstappen is a serious contender to replace him at Mercedes next season.

A vacancy has opened up at the Silver Arrows following Hamilton’s shock decision to join Ferrari.

The apparent division at Red Bull – following the very public spat between team principal Christian Horner and Verstappen’s father, Jos – has led to speculation that the Dutch driver, despite being under contract until 2028, could quit the team which has carried him to the past three world championships.

“My move has shown that anything is possible,” said Hamilton ahead of this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. “I know and I am sure Max is on the list.”

Hamilton and Verstappen’s relationship soured in 2021 as they fought for the world title – with Verstappen taking the championship following a deeply contentious end to the season decider in Abu Dhabi. Tensions were also high between Mercedes and Red Bull.

But Hamilton continued: “I wouldn’t say I am surprised that he is being considered. He is a great driver.

“And Max in that moment did what he had to do. It was nothing on him. It was the sport that let us down and that wasn’t his fault. If I was in his position I would have done the same thing, so there are no issues there.

“If you run a team you want the best driver and a driver that brings in the eyeballs and brings in the sponsorship and he is one of those. I understand it but it wouldn’t make sense for him, but it will be interesting to see.

“George (Russell) is an integral part of this team and he will be here for the long haul. He is doing a great job and he will grow to be a leader of this team so it will be interesting to see what their relationship looks like but I am sure they will work it out.

“It will definitely be a strong line-up.”

Earlier, Russell said he would welcome the challenge of going up against Verstappen, who has won 18 of the last 19 races and is the overwhelming favourite to claim another victory in Jeddah on Saturday night.

“This is my third season alongside Lewis, the greatest of all time and I feel like I have done a pretty good job alongside him,” said Russell.

“So, whoever were to line up alongside me, I welcome the challenge.

“You want to go against the best. I believe I can beat anybody on the grid. Having Lewis as my benchmark has been a good benchmark for sure.

“Any team wants to have the best driver line-up possible and right now Max is the best driver on the grid.

“If any team had a chance to sign Max they would 100 per cent be taking it but the question is on his side and Red Bull’s side and we don’t know what is truly going on behind closed doors and it is none of our business. But it would be exciting.”

Max Verstappen stood by his father Jos, saying “he is not a liar” following his explosive claim that Red Bull could explode if Christian Horner remains as team principal.

Speaking ahead of this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Verstappen was asked if his father regretted his remarks, which not only cast further doubt over Horner’s future, but of his son.

“I have not asked him that but my dad, from how I know him in go-karting, is very outspoken and he is not a liar, that is for sure.

“My dad and I are very close. We call every day.”

Verstappen’s manager Raymond Vermeulen met with Horner earlier this week in an attempt to clear the air at the crisis-hit team. Neither Max, nor Jos, were present.

And Verstappen added: “I don’t see myself in F1 without them (his father and manager) by my side.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has urged Formula One and its governing body to “set the compass right” amid continued controversy surrounding Christian Horner.

Horner was earlier this week cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

But the 50-year-old faced subsequent scrutiny after a series of leaked WhatsApp messages –  appearing to be exchanged between him and his complainant – were leaked to all the major players in the sport.

FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem told the Financial Times on Friday that the turmoil is “damaging the sport on a human level”. F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali has not commented on the matter.

Earlier this week, Wolff called for greater transparency from Red Bull Racing’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH, who conducted the investigation.

The Austrian corporation said it was confident the inquiry into Horner had been “fair, rigorous and impartial” and added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”. Horner has always denied the claims.

“Let’s see where it goes in the next days,” said Wolff on Saturday night. “I would very much hope that the governing body, the sanctioning body and the commercial rights’ holder sets the compass right.

“But the moment I start to continue to question how this has been handled, I am probably not doing any good to the whole issue, because then it could be seen as this just being about a power fight within F1.

“That’s why I think it’s not in the team’s hands. It’s a much bigger topic than that and I don’t want to diminish the whole situation by making it seem like the Mercedes guy is talking about the Red Bull guys.”

Wolff was speaking after a disappointing opening race of the season for his Mercedes team at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

George Russell started third and finished fifth – 47 seconds behind winner Max Verstappen – with Lewis Hamilton taking the chequered flag in seventh, 50 sec adrift.

Wolff continued: “Max is in a different league, a different galaxy. We just have to acknowledge his performance levels.

“But I believe that the group of Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes were probably in a similar ballpark. We just need to look at ourselves, get on top of our problems and if we are able to manage our race weekend better, we will be racing those guys.”

Christian Horner said he is “absolutely confident” he will ride out the storm of his life and remain as Red Bull team principal for the rest of the season.

The build-up to the first round of the Formula One campaign here in Bahrain has been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Horner.

But the 50-year-old, who was joined by his wife Geri in a defiant show of unity ahead of Saturday’s 57-lap race, can take temporary relief from seeing Max Verstappen lead a Red Bull one-two, with Sergio Perez second.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz crossed the line in third, one place ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc, with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton a disappointing fifth and seventh respectively for Mercedes.

Asked if he is confident he will stay on as Red Bull team principal for the rest of the season, Horner replied: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

During an extraordinary week in the Gulf kingdom, Horner was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, on Wednesday following an internal probe into allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” made by a female colleague.

But hundreds of WhatsApp messages, appearing to be exchanged between him and the complainant, were then leaked to the F1 world.

Horner has remained steadfast throughout, and strode hand-in-hand with Geri along the paddock one hour and 45 minutes before the lights went out.

Red Bull’s majority shareholder and Horner ally, Thai billionaire Chalerm Yoovidhya, also joined the duo on the team’s terrace in a very public show of support for the embattled team principal.

Horner planted a kiss on wife Geri before he headed to the Red Bull pit wall to watch his team blow away their rivals. Geri later headed to the garage to watch the race.

The pair stood together smiling underneath the podium as Verstappen celebrated his 18th win from the past 19 races.

An emotional Horner continued: “I have the support of an incredible family, an incredible wife, an incredible team and everybody within that team.

“And my focus is going racing, winning racing and doing the best I can.

“It was a day about starting the season in the best possible way. My focus is on this team, my family, my wife and racing.”

Horner was also quizzed about the leaked Google file which was sent from an anonymous email account to 149 members of the F1 paddock – including FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as members of the media.

Horner said: “I am not going to comment on anonymous speculative messages from an unknown source. I am not going to comment on what motives whatever person may have for doing this.

“Obviously, it has not been pleasant with some of the unwanted attention, but the focus is very much on the cars and my focus has been on what is happening on track and the result today demonstrates where the focus is and we move onwards.

“There was a full, lengthy internal process that was completed by an independent KC and the grievance that was raised was dismissed. End of. Move on.

“You could see what it (the win) meant to the whole team. It is better to do your talking on the track.

“I have always been entirely confident that I would be here and my focus is on the season, and the races we have ahead.”

Horner is set to be back in the spotlight in just five days when the cars hit the track in practice for the next round in Saudi Arabia.

Max Verstappen delivered for Christian Horner’s crisis-hit Red Bull team by winning the opening race of the Formula One season in Bahrain on Saturday.

The build-up to the first round of the campaign here in the Gulf Kingdom has totally been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Red Bull team principal Horner.

But Horner, who was joined by his wife Geri in a show of unity ahead of Saturday’s 57-lap race, can take temporary relief from seeing Verstappen lead a Red Bull one-two, with Sergio Perez second.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz took the chequered flag in third, one place ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton a disappointing fifth and seventh respectively for Mercedes. McLaren’s Lando Norris finished sixth.

During an extraordinary week in Bahrain, Horner was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, on Wednesday following an internal probe into allegations of “inappropriate made by a female colleague.

Hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him were then leaked to the F1 world a day later.

Horner has remained defiant throughout and put on a show of unity with his Spice Girl wife Geri, as they strode hand-in-hand along the paddock one hour and 45 minutes before the lights went out.

Red Bull’s majority shareholder and Horner ally, Thai billionaire Chalerm Yoovidhya, joined the duo on the team’s terrace in another public show of support for Horner.

Horner planted a kiss on wife Geri before he headed to pit wall to watch his team blow away their rivals.

Verstappen has raced to the past three world championships and his crushing streak looks set to continue into 2024 following a commanding lights-to-flag win.

The Dutch driver saw off team-mate Perez’s challenge by 22.4 seconds to take his 18th win from the last 19 F1 races and, remarkably, his 36th victory since Hamilton last won a grand prix.

“Great start to the year, guys, a one-two finish, as well so fantastic,” said Verstappen over the team radio.

Horner replied: “As you say, Max, pole-position, one-two finish, fastest lap, a clean sweep. A brilliant way to start the year. Thanks very much.”

Such was Red Bull’s stranglehold on last season’s championship, that they were afforded the luxury of turning their attention to this year’s machine earlier than their competitors.

And revered designer Adrian Newey appears to have built a car which could take Verstappen to another stratosphere.

After holding off the challenge from Ferrari’s Leclerc on the run down to the opening corner, his victory never appeared in doubt. By the end of lap 11, Verstappen had already pulled 10 seconds clear.

Behind, Russell was on the move – taking second from Leclerc on the third lap in an encouraging start for the Mercedes man.

But that would be as good as it got for the Silver Arrows, with Perez moving ahead of Russell on the exit of Turn 4 on lap 14 before Sainz gazumped the British driver for third three laps later.

Hamilton started ninth and was making little early progress, complaining on lap 25 that his seat was broken.

He started to make his way through the field, getting past McLaren’s Oscar Piastri on lap 35 and then Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin for seventh on lap 39.

But the seven-time world champion, who will join Ferrari next year, made no inroads into Norris ahead before Mercedes’ poor evening was dealt another blow when Leclerc took fourth off Russell with 11 laps to run.

Hamilton finished 50 seconds behind Verstappen.

For Verstappen, it was another emphatic display, with fireworks exploding into the night sky as he cemented his status as the overwhelming favourite to march to another title – despite Red Bull’s ongoing off-track turbulence.

Lewis Hamilton believes Mercedes have delivered a car capable of putting him in the fight at the front – despite qualifying only ninth for Saturday’s opening round of the season in Bahrain.

Max Verstappen saw off Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc by two tenths to capture pole position, with Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell next up, a third of a second back.

Hamilton raised hope that he might take the challenge to Verstappen when he finished fastest in practice here on Thursday.

However, the 39-year-old, entering his final campaign for the Silver Arrows before he joins Ferrari, finished half-a-second adrift.

But an optimistic Hamilton said: “It is amazing to see how close everyone is, and George’s position is testament to how amazing a job all those working at the factory have done to give us a car to fight.

“The car is really fantastic, and a big improvement from previous years.

“It is stable and more fun to drive. For George to be three tenths off Max is incredible and it shows what is possible.

“We just have to add performance, but if that is our platform, we can definitely chase for the rest of the season.

“For the first qualifying session to be as poor as that when you put in so much preparation is disappointing, but that is racing.”

Verstappen is expected to romp to his fourth consecutive world championship in his all-conquering Red Bull machine.

But the Dutch driver was made to work for the 33rd pole of his career under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Sakhir Circuit.

Verstappen headed into his final run with less than a tenth in his pocket over Leclerc before extending his margin to the Ferrari driver.

Despite taking top spot, Verstappen apologised for what he perceived to be a scruffy lap.

“Don’t be sorry, Max,” said a weary-sounding Christian Horner – whose Formula One future is again in the spotlight after hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him to a female colleague were leaked. “You finished two tenths clear of Charles and three tenths ahead of George.”

Verstappen added: “It was a lot of fun. I am very happy to be on pole, and it was a little bit unexpected. The car came to us and I felt happier than I did in practice.

“The race is going to be close, too, but we will see tomorrow. I am confident we can have a strong race.”

While Verstappen qualified first, Sergio Perez was fifth in the other Red Bull, one place ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.

British driver Lando Norris will line up in seventh for McLaren, with Williams’ Alex Albon 13th.

Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly will prop up the grid following a miserable qualifying session for the Alpine team.

Red Bull’s superstar driver Max Verstappen stopped short of providing his full support for embattled team principal Christian Horner.

Verstappen temporarily took the spotlight off Horner – whose Formula One future is again in the spotlight after hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him to a female colleague were leaked – when the Dutchman secured pole position for Saturday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But moments after capturing top spot, Verstappen was quizzed on how the latest allegations surrounding Red Bull had affected his preparations, and if Horner remains the right person to lead the crisis-hit team.

“From my side, and, from the mechanics and engineers, we’re fully focused on the car, and fully focused on the weekend which is how it should be and that is what we continue to do,” said Verstappen.

Appearing to swerve the question about Horner, he added: “It’s not our business to get involved in that. We are paid to do our job, that is what we are out there doing, and that is what we love doing and that is what I focus on.”

Verstappen was asked again if he still had faith in Horner.

“When I look at how Christian operates within the team he has been an incredible boss so from the performance kind of things you can’t question that,” he added.

“I speak to Christian a lot and he is fully committed to the team.

“He is here for the performance, and of course he is a little bit distracted, but we just focus on performance and that is how we all work together.”

On Wednesday, Horner was cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” by the F1 team’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH. He has always denied the claims.

But just 24 hours later, a number of messages and images apparently exchanged between Horner and the complainant were sent from an anonymous email account to 149 members of the F1 paddock – including FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as members of the media.

Domenicali and Ben Sulayem spoke on Friday to discuss the next steps.

Horner’s wife, Geri Halliwell, flew to Bahrain and could be with her husband at Saturday’s race. Chalerm Yoovidhya, who owns 51 per cent of the Red Bull group, might also be in attendance.

Neither F1’s American owners, Liberty Media, nor its regulator, the FIA, have seen Red Bull GmbH’s report into Horner, which is thought to stretch to 150 pages and was said to be “confidential”.

The FIA considered the legalities of asking Red Bull to hand over its report, and examining if Horner might have breached two clauses of its International Sporting Code.

Article 12.2.1.c of the code states that a competitor will have committed an offence if there was “any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any Competition or to the interests of motor sport generally”.

Article 12.2.1.f highlights “any words, deeds or writings that have caused moral injury or loss to the FIA, its bodies, its members or its executive officers, and more generally on the interest of motor sport and on the values defended by the FIA”.

Meanwhile, article 12.2.1.g states that “any failure to cooperate in an investigation” would breach the code.

However, the likelihood of any action receded as another extraordinary day – which included speculation that another damning email leak would arrive but never did – wore on.

Horner spoke only once about the latest allegations as he made his way from Red Bull’s hospitality suite to the team’s garage earlier on Friday.

“I am not going to comment on anonymous speculation from unknown sources,” he said. When asked what comes next, Horner replied: “We go racing.

Max Verstappen temporarily took the spotlight off team boss Christian Horner by putting his Red Bull on pole position for the opening round of the new Formula One season in Bahrain.

The build-up to the first race of the campaign has totally been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Horner.

The 50-year-old was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” against a female colleague on Wednesday – before hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him were leaked to the F1 world a day later.

However, Horner, who has always denied any wrongdoing and remains in his role, was on the world champions’ pit wall here in Bahrain to see Verstappen claim his first pole of a season in which he is expected to romp to his fourth consecutive world championship in his all-conquering Red Bull machine.

But the triple world champion was made to work for the 33rd pole of his career under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Sakhir Circuit with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc second, two tenths back.

George Russell finished third for Mercedes, one place ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. Lewis Hamilton will line up in ninth on the grid.

Max Verstappen may be the clear favourite for a fourth straight Formula One championship, but Paul di Resta does not see Red Bull having it all their own way in 2024.

Verstappen has dominated the sport in the past two seasons after pipping rival Lewis Hamilton to win his first title back in 2021.

The Dutchman was champion by 146 points in 2022, then stretched that gap to a staggering 290 points last year as he won 19 of 22 races.

Di Resta, who drove for Force India, hailed Red Bull's "incredible job" as they "pulled out a couple of wins they shouldn't have", but he expects Verstappen to at least have some competition in the coming campaign.

"People will get closer this year, 100 per cent," Di Resta told Stats Perform. "It's not going to be a runaway like it was.

"But to get on top of that at every grand prix with the advantage that he had at some tracks last year, I don't see how they can lose the championship, to be honest, unless somebody's got something hiding in the wind tunnel that they're going to bring out and surprise everyone with.

"Over the course of the season, I think he'll get the job done.

"I think he'll have a harder time at it, and I'd like to see them more in battle. I'd like to see them up against Lando [Norris], I'd like to see them up against Lewis, Ferrari in there as well.

"The biggest thing is when it's closer, when you're having a bad day, you're having a bad day. When you're having a good day, you're having a good day. The swing was not big enough ever because he was always winning last year."

Mercedes did not win a single race in 2023, but Di Resta sees the Silver Arrows as Red Bull's biggest rivals again in what is set to be Hamilton's final season with the team before joining Ferrari.

"I think it'll be Mercedes," he said. "They've said they're coming out with a car that's very different, very different philosophy.

"They are undoubtedly still one of the best teams in Formula One, and I think just when you look at the last 10 years and how they've gone about their business, you have to believe in that."

Lewis Hamilton raised hope of taking the fight to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix after finishing fastest in practice.

The seven-time world champion led a Mercedes one-two under the lights of the Sakhir Circuit, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third and the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz fourth.

World champion Verstappen finished sixth, nearly half-a-second back for Red Bull.

Verstappen had been regarded as the heavy favourite heading into Saturday’s curtain raiser in the Gulf kingdom.

But the Dutch driver bemoaned the handling of his machine in the first running and then failed to match the speed of the Mercedes drivers later in the day.

The Silver Arrows went under the radar at last week’s test in Bahrain, but they were quietly optimistic heading into Friday’s running – and the second session belonged to the team that once dominated the sport.

Hamilton, who has not won a race for two years, was back at the top of the order as the seven-time world champion enjoyed a two-tenth margin to team-mate George Russell, with Alonso 0.286 seconds off the pace.

Red Bull’s preparations for the new season have been overshadowed by claims of “inappropriate behaviour” made against its team principal Christian Horner.

The 50-year-old was cleared to remain in his role on Wednesday following an investigation by the racing team’s parent company GmbH.

But the world champions were surprisingly off the pace in both sessions here. With Verstappen appearing to be in trouble, team-mate Sergio Perez was only ninth in the order.

“Everything is s***,” yelled Verstappen over the radio during the first session. “Like miles off.”

Earlier in the day, Daniel Ricciardo finished fastest.

The Australian – driving for the newly rebranded RB team – saw off Lando Norris by just 0.032secs, with Oscar Piastri third in the other McLaren.

Ricciardo was dropped by McLaren at the end of 2022, but he was handed a lifeline by Red Bull’s junior team midway through last season. He finished 11th in the day’s concluding running.

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