Lewis Hamilton claimed his 75th Formula One pole position – and his first in France – by narrowly defeating team-mate Valtteri Bottas by one tenth of a second in tricky qualifying conditions at the Circuit Paul Ricard.
Star of the day was Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, who progressed into the third part of qualifying for the first time in his career. The F2 reigning champion, who is increasingly linked with a Ferrari drive in 2019, ended up eighth on the grid ahead of both Haas cars in Q3.
Mercedes made the perfect start in their bid to rectify their shortcomings from the Canadian Grand Prix. The threat of rain – which prevented any meaningful running in free practice three – never materialised into anything more than a light drizzle, and the duo were able to extract the full potential from their upgraded power units to take the second all-Mercedes front row of the season.
Bottas – who missed out on any qualifying simulations in FP2 and FP3 – will be pleased to have pushed his team-mate hard for pole position. The Finn also out-qualified championship leader Sebastian Vettel, who made a mistake on his final flying lap to put himself out of contention for pole position.
“It’s a difficult one to get the right balance. I tried to push everything in the last attempt, but looking back, I pushed too hard,” admitted Vettel.
“I knew that with a really amazing lap I might have a chance, but it didn’t come.
“In the end, P3 I’m happy with because we should have a good car for the race.”
The two Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo completed the qualifying hour in fourth and fifth respectively, finishing ahead of an out-of-sorts Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari.
Renault’s Carlos Sainz took seventh.
Qualifying Session 1
Lewis Hamilton was able to give the first indicators into the life of the ultrasoft tyres; the Briton was able to set the fastest lap of Q1 on his second flying lap on the same set of tyres. Many attempted a third lap, but were unable to improve further.
Following their frustrating performance in Montreal two weeks’ ago, McLaren’s form failed to improve. Both cars were eliminated in the first part of qualifying, with Fernando Alonso in sixteenth and Stoffel Vandoorne in eighteenth, separated by Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley.
“Nothing went wrong, I think the performance is what it is,” said Alonso after qualifying.
“This morning in the meeting, we predicted to be between P14 and P15, so it’s where we are.”
Hartley’s qualifying session was made redundant before it even began. Thanks to his power unit problems in free practice two, the Kiwi was forced into taking new components.
His car was given a new internal combustion engine, MGU-H, turbocharger, MGU-K, control electronics and energy store, which added up to a 35-place grid penalty.
However, the updated regulations for this year mean that if a driver is handed a fifteen-place grid penalty or higher, he is automatically sent to the back of the grid.
Another disappointing qualifying session for Williams ended with both cars at the bottom of the timing sheets, with Sergey Sirotkin out-qualifying Lance Stroll, who had a big bump over the kerbs after he ran wide at turn two on his final flying lap.
Qualifying Session 2
With rain making an appearance in the dying seconds of Q1, drivers were queuing at the end of the pit lane to try and beat the wet-weather conditions.
The track was more than dry enough to complete lap times on slick tyres, and the briefness of the rain spell meant that all drivers had the opportunity to run through the entire session and have multiple attempts to progress.
In an anticipated alternate strategy, both Mercedes and Red Bull drivers completed their Q2 laps on the super soft tyres, with all four drivers comfortably fast enough to go through.
With the track evolving, Hamilton, Bottas and Ricciardo all threatened to complete a final flying lap on the ultrasoft tyres, but all three drivers backed off in order to keep their laps with the supersoft tyres.
The Mercedes, Ferraris, Red Bulls and Haas’ were comfortably through to Q3, along with Renault’s Carlos Sainz and Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, who set a remarkable lap to send Sauber into the final part of qualifying for the first time since the 2015 Italian Grand Prix.
The other Sauber of Marcus Ericsson progressed beyond Q1 for the first time this season, but he finished at the foot of the time sheets in Q2.
Also eliminated were the two Force Indias, Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly.
Qualifying Session 3
Spots of rain were once again threatening to disrupt the session, which encouraged another queue at the end of the pit lane. However, the rain eased and all drivers were able to complete a ‘normal’ Q3 session.
There were minor errors for many of the drivers on their first flying laps, but Hamilton set the initial benchmark of a 1:30.222, followed closely by Bottas and Vettel.
Despite the weekend showing a lot of promise for Haas, Romain Grosjean once again was involved in an incident which hampers the team’s weekend.
The Frenchman lost control of his Haas VF-18 on the exit of turn three and skated off into the barrier, damaging the front-end of the car and bringing out the red flags. This affected his team-mate Magnussen, who was unable to complete his lap.
With the session restarting with seven minutes to go, all drivers except Grosjean were able to rejoin and start a final flying lap.
The only front-running drivers to improve on their final laps were the two Mercedes drivers, who both completed impressive final sectors, but Hamilton edged Bottas to take the Silver Arrows’ first pole position at the French Grand Prix.
An error at turn three for Vettel meant the Ferrari was unable to challenge for pole position, whilst Verstappen, Ricciardo and Raikkonen failed to improve on their final attempts.
Sainz took seventh ahead of Leclerc, who profited from Haas drivers being unable to extract the maximum from their respective qualifying sessions.
“It’s just unbelievable. Its probably the best recovery I’ve done in my career, from one day to another,” said Leclerc.
“Yesterday was a disaster. The car didn’t feel great, I was not driving very well and we completely changed the car today and I felt a lot better.
“I went to bed very late as I spent a lot of time with the engineers to find out what were the issues. They’ve been very good in identifying the exact issues and they understood what I wanted from the car.
“We should all be proud – the team and I – of what we’ve achieved today.”
By: Luke Murphy
FRENCH GRAND PRIX, Qualifying
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m30.029s
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1m30.147s 0.118s
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m30.400s 0.371s
4 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault 1m30.705s 0.676s
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault 1m30.895s 0.866s
6 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m31.057s 1.028s
7 Carlos Sainz Renault 1m32.126s 2.097s
8 Charles Leclerc Sauber/Ferrari 1m32.635s 2.606s
9 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari 1m32.930s 2.901s
10 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari No Time
11 Esteban Ocon Force India/Mercedes 1m32.075s
12 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1m32.115s
13 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 1m32.454s
14 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso/Honda 1m32.460s
15 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 1m32.820s
16 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Renault 1m32.976s
17 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso/Honda 1m33.025s
18 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren/Renault 1m33.162s
19 Sergey Sirotkin Williams/Mercedes 1m33.636s
20 Lance Stroll Williams/Mercedes 1m33.729s
All images: Motorsport Images
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