By Abhishek Takle
MANAMA (Reuters) - Valtteri Bottas took pole position for the Sakhir Grand Prix on Saturday, just fending off super-sub George Russell who was standing in for the absent Lewis Hamilton and completed a front-row lockout for Mercedes on his debut for the Formula One champions.
Red Bull's Max Verstappen qualified third for Sunday's floodlit Formula One race with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc a surprising fourth.
Hamilton has already won the title, his record-equalling seventh, but the Briton is isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.
"It wasn't one of my best qualifyings but I'm happy it was enough," said a relieved Bottas, who was only 0.026 seconds quicker than Russell on the fast and short outer layout of Bahrain's Sakhir circuit.
Russell, who has yet to score a point in 36 races with his struggling regular team Williams, has seized his opportunity with both hands and was quickest in both practice sessions on Friday.
Saturday was the first time the 22-year-old Briton had been outqualified by a team mate in his F1 career but his effort was sensational enough.
"Gutted to miss out on pole by 20 milliseconds but if you'd told me last week I'd be qualifying P2 on the grid next week I think I wouldn't have believed you," he said.
Bottas, 34, lapped the 3.5-km circuit in 53.377 seconds to clinch the 16th pole of his career and fifth this season but Russell and Dutchman Verstappen were hot on his heels.
Russell, in only his second season in Formula One, had never before even made it to the final pole-position shoot-out phase of qualifying.
Verstappen pinned his hopes for Sunday’s race on making a strong start after once again being force to settle for third behind a pair of Mercedes despite having come within a whisker of pole.
“This track, the lap times are so close it could all depend on the start,” said the 23-year-old, one of only two non-Mercedes winners this season. “It's not going to be easy.”
Verstappen's team mate Alexander Albon will be disappointed after getting knocked out in the second phase of qualifying.
The Thai driver, who faces an uncertain future at the team, will line up 12th after his lap elicited a shake of the head from team boss Christian Horner.
Sergio Perez will start fifth for Racing Point, alongside AlphaTauri's Daniil Kvyat in sixth.
Rookies Jack Aitken and Pietro Fittipaldi made their qualifying debuts.
The Briton, standing in for Russell at Williams, was 18th.
Brazilian Fittipaldi, taking the place at Haas of Frenchman Romain Grosjean after he suffered burns to his hands in a fiery crash at last weekend's race, was last.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)