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