French GP Qualifying: Max Verstappen wins first F1 pole since season-opener, Lewis Hamilton second
Title leader Verstappen returns to pole for the first time in six races amid strong Paul Ricard performance from Red Bull; Hamilton on front row ahead of Bottas; Watch Sunday's race live only on Sky Sports F1 and Main Event from 2pm, with build-up from 12.30pm
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 20/06/21 2:15pm
Max Verstappen claimed a superb pole position to beat championship rival Lewis Hamilton to the head of the grid for Sunday's French GP.
The F1 championship leader, who holds a slender four-point advantage over his British rival, topped qualifying for the first time since March's season-opener in Bahrain amid a strong weekend so far around a Paul Ricard circuit at which Mercedes had dominated since it returned to the sport three years ago.
Despite appearing off the pace through practice, Hamilton was a strong threat in the pole shootout and Verstappen required an improved final lap of 1:29.990 to see off the seven-time world champion by a margin of 0.258 seconds.
"That was a good lap. Still over two tenths off?" said Hamilton to his race engineer over the radio after beating Verstappen's original Q3 time with his final attempt but still falling comfortably short of pole.
Valtteri Bottas had been the faster Mercedes driver through practice but slipped behind Hamilton in qualifying, although still took third from the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez with his last lap.
But Red Bull certainly appear the team to beat in the south of France.
"If we can beat them here, really we can beat them anywhere," said Red Bull boss Christian Horner to Sky F1. "So there's a lot at stake."
After back-to-back poles on street circuits, Ferrari as expected slipped backwards here but it was still a strong day for Carlos Sainz, who outqualified team-mate Charles Leclerc for just the second time to take fifth.
Pierre Gasly, fresh from a first podium of the year in Baku, again performed well for AlphaTauri in sixth. Lando Norris was the lead McLaren in eighth, just behind Leclerc but ahead of Alpine's Fernando Alonso.
Daniel Ricciardo was 10th in the second McLaren, while Alpine's Esteban Ocon and Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel just missed out on Q3 and will start in the middle of the pack on a circuit where overtaking is tough.
French GP Qualifying: Top 10
1) Max Verstappen, Red Bull
2) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
3) Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes
4) Sergio Perez, Red Bull
5) Carlos Sainz, Ferrari
6) Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri
7) Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
8) Lando Norris, McLaren
9) Fernando Alonso, Alpine
10) Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren
Fantastic battle between @redbullracing & @MercedesAMGF1— Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) June 19, 2021
Both teams looking for every thousandth of performance from themselves and against their rivals.
Toto even came to the Skypad to see if he could learn anything from the side by side comparison with Max. #NoStoneUnturned
A 'statement' weekend in store from Red Bull?
On F1's last visit to Paul Ricard two years ago, Red Bull qualified more than a second adrift of Mercedes and finished half a minute behind their big rivals in the race, with Verstappen off the podium.
But the former world champions represent a very different proposition in 2021 and, having been quick on different types of track so far in 2021, have again looked ominously strong so far here.
"It's a significant statement that Red Bull have outpaced Mercedes today," said Sky F1's Martin Brundle. "But can they tomorrow?"
Since opening his season with an impressive pole in Bahrain, Verstappen had been frustrated in his attempts to top Q3 again but this one did not get away from the Dutchman as he followed up provisional pole on his first attempt in the final phase with actual pole on his second.
"So far it's been a really positive weekend, on a track where it's normally been a bit difficult for us," said Verstappen, who now has five poles in F1. "To get pole position feels really nice.
"It's a great day. We have to finish it off tomorrow and try and get the 25 points we lost in Baku."
Verstappen and Hamilton will start alongside each other on the front row for just the third time in seven races this season, although that had not looked a given for the latter ahead of qualifying.
Hamilton, who is racing with the chassis Bottas had used for the previous four races with the team rotating them between the team-mates on mileage grounds, had worked with the team to dial in the best set-up for the W12.
"It's been a really, really hard weekend. Mentally, and just trying to get the car into a happy place," said Hamilton. "You wouldn't believe how many changes I've made since Practice One, going round and round chasing our tails and ending up coming back to something similar to where we started. I've generally been unhappy in the car all weekend."
He added: "Congratulations to Max, they've done an incredible job this weekend and they're incredibly quick. They've got a new engine this weekend and they're quick on the straight.
"We're loving the battle."
Crashes disrupt start of qualifying
Despite the Paul Ricard circuit being surrounded by expansive run-off areas, there were still two red flags in Q1 for crashes.
AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda condemned himself to a back-of-the-grid start after spinning out at the first corner at the start of his first lap.
Fellow rookie Mick Schumacher then crashed his Haas at the end of the session at Turn Six.
Schumacher was battling to hold on to a maiden Q2 position at the time and, although his crash meant he actually maintained that position with insufficient time to restart the session once his car was cleared, he was unable to take part in the second stage having struck the barriers hard and damaged his car.
The early end to Q1 curtailed a host of drivers' final laps, none more so than Aston Martin's Lance Stroll who was without a lap time at that point and so unexpectedly failed to clear the first hurdle in 19th place.
Williams' Nicholas Latifi, who was just 0.003s adrift of team-mate George Russell's position in Q2, was another driver left frustrated by the flags. Russel himself had to abandon a particularly strong lap too, although still made the second phase and maintained his 100 per cent team-mate qualifying record at Williams.
French GP Qualifying Timesheet
|1) Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1:29.990|
|2) Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||+0.258|
|3) Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||+0.386|
|4) Sergio Perez||Red Bull||+0.455|
|5) Carlos Sainz||Ferrari||+0.850|
|6) Pierre Gasly||AlphaTauri||+0.878|
|7) Charles Leclerc||Ferrari||+0.997|
|8) Lando Norris||McLaren||+1.262|
|9) Fernando Alonso||Alpine||+1.350|
|10) Daniel Ricciardo||McLaren||+1.392|
|Knocked out in Q2|
|11) Esteban Ocon||Alpine||1:31.736|
|12) Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||1:31.767|
|13) Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||1:31.813|
|14) George Russell||Williams||1:32.065|
|15) Mick Schumacher||Haas||No Q2 time set|
|Knocked out in Q1|
|16) Nicholas Latifi||Williams||1:33.062|
|17) Kimi Raikkonen||Alfa Romeo||1:33.354|
|18) Nikita Mazepin||Haas||1:33.554|
|19) Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||2:12.584|
|20) Yuki Tsunoda||AlphaTauri||No time set|
When is Sunday's French GP?
Lights out for Round Seven of what has proved a gripping 2021 season is at 2pm, live on Sky Sports F1 and Sky Sports Main Event. Build-up begins at 12.30pm.