Paul Ricard hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Red Bull in the past, but Max Verstappen ripped up the formbook in French Grand Prix qualifying to fend off title rival Lewis Hamilton and take sensational pole position.
The French track, which returned to the calendar in 2018, has traditionally been a Mercedes stronghold, with Hamilton taking pole and victory in each edition, but this time it was Red Bull who looked like the ones to beat.
Verstappen set the early pace in Q3, four tenths of a second quicker than Hamilton, but things heated up in the second runs as Hamilton went quickest in the first sector. Verstappen responded with a purple second and final sector to better his time and take his second pole of the season.
Hamilton slotted into second, alongside the Dutchman, with Valtteri Bottas taking third as Mercedes confirmed a bounce back in performance after two very difficult weekends in Monaco and Azerbaijan.
FORMULA 1 EMIRATES GRAND PRIX DE FRANCE 2021
|1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull Racing||1:29.990|
|2 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes||1:30.248|
|3 Valtteri BOTTAS Mercedes||1:30.376|
|4 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing||1:30.445|
|5 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari||1:30.840|
Sergio Perez was a fourth, albeit it half a second adrift of Red Bull team mate Verstappen, while Carlos Sainz outqualified the other Ferrari of Charles Leclerc for only the second time this season as he ended up fifth.
Pierre Gasly gave the French fans in the grandstands plenty to smile about with sixth, in what is his fifth top-six starting spot in seven Grand Prix weekends this year. Leclerc, pole-sitter in the last two races, could only manage seventh as he was beaten by a team mate for the first time at Paul Ricard.
It was a tougher day for McLaren, as while they got both cars into Q3, they were down towards the bottom of the pile with Lando Norris eighth and Daniel Ricciardo a tenth further back in 10th.
They were separated by Fernando Alonso, the sole representative for Alpine in Q3 in the team’s home race, with the Spaniard making it four Q3 appearances in seven this season. His team mate and home favourite Ocon will start 11th.
AS IT HAPPENED
Q1 – Verstappen sets pace, as Tsunoda and Schumacher crash
With several thousand fans in the grandstands watching on, qualifying got under way in glorious conditions. But it was just six minutes old when FIA Race Director Michael Masi was forced to throw the red flag after Yuki Tsunoda lost control of his AlphaTauri at Turn 2 and slid into the barriers.
When running got back under way, Verstappen set a scintillating pace with a lap that was more than six tenths of a second quicker than Valtteri Bottas. His main title rival Lewis Hamilton did a second fast lap on the same set of tyres to move into second, but he was still 0.2s off.
Elsewhere, Lance Stroll had his first lap time deleted for exceeding track limits. He bolted on a fresh set of tyres for a second run, but backed out of it with just two minutes to go, leaving him with one shot to get to Q2.
Unfortunately for the Canadian, he didn’t get that chance as another red flag was required when Mick Schumacher hit the barriers hard – and that meant everyone’s final runs had to be aborted.
As a result, Schumacher made Q2 for the first time in 14th – but would be unable to take any part following his accident. Stroll had to abort, meaning he ended up 19th, with Nicholas Latifi missing out on progressing by just 0.002s as Williams team mate George Russell scraped through. Kimi Raikkonen and Nikita Mazepin were booted out early doors.
Knocked out: Latifi, Raikkonen, Mazepin, Stroll, Tsunoda
Q2 – Ocon misses the cut, as Mercedes move to the front
Mediums were the compound of choice in Q2, with the field keen to get through on that rubber to avoid having to start on the soft and more than likely have to do a two-stop rather than one-stop strategy.
Hamilton set the early pace, sneaking ahead of Perez – but he was then usurped by his team mate Bottas, making it a Mercedes one-two, the silver cars looking more comfortable on the more durable medium.
Home favourite Esteban Ocon was just 0.1s off making it into Q3 after the first runs and he wasn’t able to improve sufficiently on his next run, meaning he’ll start 11th, one place ahead of Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel.
Antonio Giovinazzi was the leading Alfa Romeo in 13th, with George Russell and Schumacher – who took no part – the other drivers to exit at the Q2 stage.
Knocked out: Ocon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Russell, Schumacher
Q3 – Verstappen fends off renewed Hamilton threat
Verstappen moved back to the front when drivers swapped mediums for softs, the Red Bull driver setting the pace with a lap that was comfortably quicker than anyone else could muster.
On the second runs, the track started to improve, meaning the majority of drivers went faster. Hamilton was one of those, setting the quickest first sector of all, but Verstappen hit back to take his fifth career pole position – and Red Bull’s eighth in the turbo hybrid era that began in 2014.
Hamilton will start second for the fourth time in seven races, with Bottas showing a return to form as a rear-gunner, beating the second Red Bull of Perez to give Mercedes a greater chance of attacking Verstappen with two cars on Sunday.
Elsewhere, Gasly recovered from having his first lap deleted for exceeding track limits – the time would have been good enough for seventh after the first runs – to slide into sixth, behind Sainz.
The key quote
“So far it’s been a really positive weekend on a track where it’s normally been a bit difficult for us,” said pole-sitter Verstappen. “I think yesterday, FP2 was a bit of a turnaround and just made it even better today so of course, to get pole position was really nice.”
The French Grand Prix kicks off at 1500 local time, which is 1200 UTC. Verstappen starts in the best place possible, but he’ll be wary of a lurking Lewis Hamilton alongside, whose Mercedes looks much more compliant around the turns of Paul Ricard.