Pierre Gasly may have joked on Thursday that he wouldn't be shaving his beard until the end of the Formula 1 season in the hope it would bring him good luck, yet after his display in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix, you wouldn't blame him for thinking it had worked.

Ferrari may have dominated proceedings with Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen locking out the front row of the grid ahead of Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas, but it was Gasly who emerged as the real star from qualifying as he finished P6 - which becomes P5 on the grid tomorrow following Lewis Hamilton's penalty.

It marks Toro Rosso's highest starting position for a race since Max Verstappen qualified fifth in Australia two years ago. However, the added significance here is that it comes as a big statement of intent of just where the new partnership with Honda - the butt of F1's jokes for much of the past three years - is going.

Even Gasly himself admitted after the session he didn't believe fifth on the grid would be possible, acting as a pleasant surprise for the youngster on only his seventh grand prix start.

"I knew that we had some good potential," he said. "FP1 and FP2 were good, but we knew that usually the others make quite a big step between the Friday and the Saturday. We thought it would be quite difficult to get into the top 10.

"This morning we managed to do it, but after in qualy, we expected to be close to the top 10 - not to be P6 and start P5 for the race tomorrow. That's just a fantastic day."

Gasly showed signs of pace throughout qualifying, sitting sixth after the first runs in Q2. However, in a bid to try and find more time by tagging onto the rear of Fernando Alonso to get a tow, the Frenchman suffered a loss of downforce that meant he couldn't improve, almost bumping him out of qualifying. It was a far cry from his overzealous bid to improve at the end of Q1 in Australia that saw him lock up and finish last in qualifying.

"It was the best lap I have done in Formula 1," Gasly said proudly. "I had one chance in Q3 with my new tyres. I knew that I had to do the lap, and if I would do like a really good lap, it could put us in a really good position.

"For sure I didn’t expect to be P6. But when I crossed the lap, I was like ‘OK, I have done and I have given everything I had’. It was just a great feeling when they told me I was P6.

"I think also on my side, I’m getting more and more comfortable on the car, session after session. Just in the beginning of the weekend, I feel that what we have, I feel comfortable with it, and I can just push as much as I want. That’s great."

The big change for Toro Rosso in Australia was a new update package, with the greatest modification coming on the floor of the car. An updated MGU-H was also put in, which despite causing concern as the team moved onto its second of three elements at only the second race of the season, has also acted as a boost - a bigger one than the team predicted.

"To be honest, the aero, we expected less than a tenth in terms of lap time," Gasly revealed. "Maybe it looks like it's working really well. Maybe we need to analyse a bit more deeply the impact on the car. But I think mainly the setup has given us quite a lot of performance. That's the positive thing.

"As I said, we're still at the beginning of the year, and we're still trying many different things and trying to understand how our car works. This weekend we definitely did a big step on these topics."

Gasly was given more time than teammate Brendon Hartley to dial in with the new aerodynamic package, receiving the new parts on Friday. Hartley only had the chance to test them out for the first time in FP3 on Saturday following their arrival overnight. Even if he had to wait a little longer, the New Zealander immediately felt the impact of the new parts.

"It was really big actually. Straightaway this morning, I think my first lap, I commented saying how much better the car felt," Hartley said. "It was really encouraging from the first lap this morning.

"I had the feeling this was going to be a stronger track for us anyway compared to Melbourne, but I wasn't expecting the performance increase from the upgrade that I had on the car today. I don't think anyone in the team expected us to take such a leap forward, to be one of the leading cars of the midfield.

"Obviously it's a tight battle still, but it's an incredible effort. In Melbourne we weren't there. OK I qualified 16th, but that was more or less where we were. We saw the pace in the race. We've really made a huge step forward."

Hartley was left with a similar feeling at the end of qualifying in Bahrain as he had in Australia. Once again, he was the leading car to be eliminated from the session - albeit Q2 this time, not Q1 - with fine margins proving decisive to leave him 11th on the grid for Sunday.

"In Melbourne I was just on the cusp of Q2, now I'm on Q3. If things were slightly different, I think we would have made it through," he said. "The first run didn't help that I destroyed my front wing with a bird. I then put three sets of tyres on in Q1, which only left me one set of new tyres for Q2, which obviously wasn't helpful.

"The lap on Q2 was pretty good. A small mistake in the last sector, but having only one set in Q2 after destroying the first set didn't help. But I don't know, I think I was one-and-a-half, two-tenths off Pierre's time. But honestly, really, really encouraging. I get a new set of tyres for the start tomorrow. We have to be focusing on points."

The result also breathed life back into the hype surrounding Toro Rosso and Honda that followed pre-season testing, when it enjoyed a spotless two week stint. Australia seemed to be a bit of a reality check as Gasly retired with an issue and Hartley finished well outside of the points - but things have turned around quickly.

The same is true of McLaren, albeit moving in the opposite direction. For all of the Honda-bashing we saw in recent years, the team suffered another double Q2 knockout with Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne qualifying 13th and 14th respectively. Alonso was lucky to make it through Q1 in P15, only beating Romain Grosjean's identical lap time by virtue of setting it earlier.

Hartley played a straight bat when asked for his thoughts on McLaren's result, saying: "No comment! But they didn't look too happy after the session."

Gasly, however, was a little more open, laughing when asked if there was extra satisfaction in the result. "I didn't say it on the radio, but yeah, for sure!" - ah, honesty. So rare. So pure.

 

 

It's all very well starting so far up the grid, but staying there is another matter. One of Honda's big issues last year was with energy recovery, making it particularly vulnerable in the race. Gasly couldn't help but grimace a little when asked if the problems had been totally ironed out, but professed confidence that progress had been made.

"We know that is tougher for us in the race than on one lap performance. That’s why we know tomorrow is not going to be easy," Gasly said.

"I think they did get better compared to last year. I think we are closer to our main competitors now. We know that in the race we are still struggling a little bit on this."

That said, analysis of the long-runs from FP2 put Toro Rosso at the head of the midfield, matching - of all teams - McLaren for pace, running around one second per lap off the pace-setting Ferraris and Mercedes. Renault, Haas and Force India are all thought to be lagging behind in the longer stints. So long as reliability issues don't arise, it could be a very good day indeed for Toro Rosso.

It may only be Saturday, Hartley still feels there are plenty of positives to take from the result, seeing it not as a flash-in-the-pan, but instead a statement of the direction the Toro Rosso-Honda partnership is moving in.

"We have to be focusing on points tomorrow. Even to be on the edge on Q3 and one car in Q3, I don't think people were expecting that when we arrived here this weekend," Hartley said.

"It's an amazing job by Toro Rosso, and a big thanks to everyone involved. It really bodes well not only for tomorrow, but the next six months as well when more updates are coming from Toro Rosso and Honda."

Setting a target of just points may seem a little defeatist for a team that will start P5 and P11 in Bahrain on Sunday, but as both the drivers and the Toro Rosso-Honda partnership looks to get off the mark in F1, it would be a significant milestone in this burgeoning partnership.

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