Lewis Hamilton claimed an impressive pole position over Valtteri Bottas as Mercedes blitzed French GP qualifying, while resurgent McLaren starred and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was only seventh.
Having topped every session this weekend at sun-kissed Paul Ricard, the Q3 shootout was a private duel between Mercedes team-mates Hamilton and Bottas and it was the world champion who won out by 0.286s with successive lap records in the final phase.
“Valtteri has been quick all weekend and my last two laps were the ones,” said Hamilton after ultimately winning pole with a final lap of 1:28.319.
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Charles Leclerc was third, a long way adrift of Mercedes, but his Ferrari team-mate Vettel will start from the fourth row after gear shift problems at the start of Q3 were followed by a disappointing final lap.
McLaren nearly claimed the scalp of Red Bull as an eye-catching Lando Norris finished within 0.009s of Max Verstappen as he and Carlos Sainz locked out the third row – ahead of engine suppliers Renault at the French manufacturer’s home race.
“We weren’t expecting anything at all to be honest,” revealed Norris to Sky F1. “We were expecting this to be a tough one and it’s turned out to be better than we ever would have expected.”
Sainz, who starts sixth, added: “It’s a good step forward. We are a second away from Mercedes and half a second away from Ferrari. It’s an incredibly good job by the factory.”
With Red Bull closer to the midfield than the front two despite their Honda engine upgrade, Pierre Gasly was a disappointing ninth, behind the lead Renault of Daniel Ricciardo. Antonio Giovinazzi was 10th for Alfa Romeo.
French GP Qualifying Top 10
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
2. Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes
3. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
4. Max Verstappen, Red Bull
5. Lando Norris, McLaren
6. Carlos Sainz, McLaren
7. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
8. Daniel Ricciardo, Renault
9. Pierre Gasly, Red Bull
10. Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo
What happened to Vettel?
Qualifying seventh represented the second successive blow for Vettel in the space of 24 hours after Ferrari’s request to have his race-losing Canada penalty reviewed was thrown out by stewards on Friday.
The German had appeared the slower of the two Ferrari drivers through practice, but at the end of Q2 managed to split the two Mercedes drivers to suggest he could be a Q3 threat.
However, the final session proved disastorious. A suspected upshift problem forced him to abandon his first effort and, with no ‘banker’ lap on the board, Vettel failed to sufficiently recover as he lapped 1.5s off pole and qualified behind the McLarens.
“Not great,” a disconsolate Vettel admitted to Sky F1.
“Up and down: some laps I felt really good, others I didn’t. Obviously in the end I didn’t get the best out of the car which is not satisfying but, as I said, it was difficult for me as some laps were really good and other laps, I don’t know why I didn’t have the grip I seemed to have the runs before.
“It’s a shame it happened in Q3, it would have been better if it had happened in the other segments.”
McLaren back at the sharp end
A year after suffering a double Q1 elimination in France, lapping nearly two seconds off the pace, McLaren’s progress up the field has gathered momentum at Paul Ricard with the MCL34 running at the head of the midfield all weekend.
Such was the car’s pace, that McLaren were able to join Mercedes, Ferrari and Verstappen in using the harder medium tyres in Q2 to ensure they start on the more favourable strategy for Sunday’s race.
“We didn’t expect to beat a Red Bull and a Ferrari,” said Sainz, who will start sixth.
“It means we are doing our homework and bringing things that help the car a bit, but the track is also suiting us.”