Lewis Hamilton felt he had got all he could out of his Mercedes as Max Verstappen stormed to an impressive pole position for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
Red Bull driver Verstappen finished 0.388 seconds clear of Mercedes rival and defending world champion Hamilton in qualifying on Saturday.
Valtteri Bottas was 0.589s back in third with Charles Leclerc taking an impressive fourth for Ferrari.
Verstappen had previously topped every practice session in Sakhir, a circuit where he is due a change of luck having retired there four times – more than at any other track in his Formula One career.
His dominant start to the campaign has fans dreaming of a competitive 2021 season after Hamilton was in a class of his own in winning a seventh world title last year.
"We have already had a great week of testing," Verstappen said.
"There are no guarantees but it's been great so far coming back for the race week. The car has been working really well - really enjoyable to drive.
"With the wind conditions changing, it's not easy to change the set-up of the car for every session but it all worked out perfectly in qualifying and I'm really happy with pole position.
"My first lap in Q3 wasn't amazing so I knew there was more in it – you never know how much - but finally the balance was there and you can push a little bit more.
"You have to be careful not to overheat the rear tyres but where it mattered we could perform. The car has been steady on the short and long runs - we have a good car."
Hamilton felt grid spots of second and third were solid accomplishments for Mercedes after their struggles in pre-season testing.
The Briton said: "Amazing [to have competition]. Congratulations to Max. He did such a great job, so fast on that last lap.
"I absolutely gave it everything I had but unfortunately it was not good enough. There is always more but it was the best I could do that is for sure and I got absolutely everything I could from the car.
"We did a really good job from testing to come here - everyone in the factory has done an amazing job.
"To be that close, closer to the Red Bulls [is good] considering in testing we thought we would be further behind."
There was some disappointment for Red Bull when Sergio Perez was unable to reach Q3 as he tried to reach the shoot-out on medium tyres. He will start 11th.
It means Hamilton and Bottas will, as they did for much of last season when Alex Albon struggled, have a strategic numerical advantage at the front as they battle Verstappen.
Bottas said: "Anything is possible and we can only aim for Sunday. We have two cars in the mix at the front with Max, so we'll see.
"The practice this morning wasn't easy, I had a couple of issues with balance.
"It was a bit better this evening. We used two sets of soft tyres in Q2 so in Q3, I only had one set of tyres, so it wasn't easy to compete with Max and Lewis."
Verstappen was just 0.023s ahead of Hamilton after the first runs of Q3, and then had to respond when his rival went fastest with his second attempt.
The Dutchman produced a brilliant answer, though, comfortably taking pole as he looks to win two straight races for the first time in his F1 career, having triumphed in the last race of 2020.
Pierre Gasly was fifth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo for his new team McLaren. Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, the returning Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll rounded out the top 10.
Sebastian Vettel had a frustrating first competitive outing for Aston Martin, as he and Esteban Ocon were eliminated in Q1, not helped by yellow flags towards the end of the session.
Ocon was 16th with Vettel in 18th, just one place ahead of Mick Schumacher on his F1 debut as the two Haas cars finished on the back row.
Hamilton has won the last two editions of the Bahrain Grand Prix, but no driver has ever recorded three straight victories at the event.
1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:28.997
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.388s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.589s
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.681s
5. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.812s
6. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +0.930s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.977s
8. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +1.218s
9. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.252s
10. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1.604s