Max Verstappen roared to pole for the French Grand Prix leaving an expected Mercedes resurgence wobbling in his slipstream. The Red Bull driver handsomely beat Lewis Hamilton into second, with the world champion accepting that any suggestion that past successes meant his Mercedes team could take anything for granted was out of the question.
Hamilton has taken pole and victory at both the previous two runnings of the French GP here at the Paul Ricard circuit, with Mercedes dominant on the predominantly high-speed track. This time however, with Hamilton in a fierce title fight with Verstappen who leads the championship by just four points, Red Bull proved crucially to hold the advantage in the areas where Mercedes had once ruled supreme.
After struggling in the low-speed challenges of Monaco and Baku, Ricard was expected to play once more to Mercedes’ strengths and it did, in that they were vastly improved, with Valtteri Bottas also claiming third on the grid. But Red Bull had also maintained the pace they enjoyed at the previous meetings and a definitive edge that has now proved their form across the full gamut of circuits.
Verstappen acknowledged their achievement. “I am very pleased with that,” he said. “This has traditionally not been an amazing track for us. To be on pole here we are super happy about that. I knew it was going to be better than the last time we were here, but I didn’t expect it to be this good so that’s very promising for us.”
Hamilton in turn acknowledged that he could not eke out any more from his car and that Mercedes could not enjoy any sense of superiority engendered from winning the past seven constructors’ and drivers’ championships.
“We are struggling with getting everything from the tyres and getting the car in the right window and it’s proving tricky,” he said. “It’s not a case of ‘put the car on the track and it works everywhere’. It’s a great challenge.”
On the first hot runs in Q3 Verstappen was mighty through the second and third sectors – the fastest parts of the lap – setting a time of 1min 30.325sec. Hamilton pushed but could not match him over the final sector, finishing almost four-tenths back in second. On the final runs the Dutchman found another level entirely. He was once more quickest in sectors two and three and took a further three-tenths off his own time, setting a 1min 29.990sec. It was a lap that left Hamilton, who had similarly gone quicker, still unable to match him, over two-tenths back.
Evidence, if any were needed, that Mercedes are in for an almighty scrap this season, which has thus far ebbed and flowed between the two teams. In France, however, Hamilton conceded that it was far harder for Mercedes to nail the balance of their car, with the world champion still trying a new setup 10 minutes before the session began. “We have some areas we need to keep working on,” he said. “Today I heard we were losing out on the straights, we have to figure out why that is.”
Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez was in fourth with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in fifth. Pierre Gasly was sixth for AlphaTauri and Charles Leclerc seventh for Ferrari. Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were in eighth and tenth for McLaren and Fernando Alonso in ninth for Alpine.
Esteban Ocon was in 11th for Alpine, Sebastian Vettel in 12th for Aston Martin and Antonio Giovinazzi in 13th for Alfa Romeo. George Russell was in 14th for Williams. Haas’s Mick Schumacher crashed in Q3 but had impressively made it to Q2 and will start from 15th.
Nicholas Latifi was in 16th for Williams, Kimi Raikkonen in 17th for Alfa Romeo and Nikita Mazepin in 18th for Haas. Lance Stroll was in 19th for Aston Martin. AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda crashed out in Q1 and will start from the back of the grid.
Before qualifying, the president of the FIA, Jean Todt, expressed his opposition to the sprint qualifying race concept which F1 is set to trial at the first time at the British Grand Prix. The sprint, which will run for approximately half an hour, will replace qualifying on a Saturday to decide Sunday’s grid for the GP and will be trialled at two further races this season. “We don’t call that a race, for me the race is on Sunday. If you ask me if I am a big fan of that, the answer is no,” Todt said. “I don’t think Formula One needs it. It will be a different way of having the starting grid on Sunday. It costs nothing to try. I’m curious to see what will happen, but I am sure it will not damage the race on Sunday.”
The sprint race has received criticism, not least in that points will be awarded (three, two and one for the top three) and hence detract from the spectacle of the full GP. Earlier this week F1’s sporting director Ross Brawn insisted the sport would not pursue the concept if it was not successful and called on traditionalists to at least give it a chance.