Lewis Hamilton achieved his 75th career pole position in Formula 1 by beating Valtteri Bottas by 0.118 seconds to lead a Mercedes one-two in qualifying for the French Grand Prix on the sport’s return to Paul Ricard.
Mercedes looked strong during the practice sessions, and had the advantage throughout a qualifying hour during which rain threatened and fell lightly but never seriously impacted conditions.
Hamilton took control of the Q3 top ten shootout by posting a lap time of one minute, 30.222 seconds on ultrasofts on his first run, putting him a tenth ahead of Bottas and almost two tenths clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
That was before the session was stopped thanks to Haas driver Romain Grosjean crashing at the long Turn 4 left-hander.
Grosjean is not having a good season so far, so many crashes and incidents…
When the session restarted, Vettel was unable to improve on his earlier lap of one minute, 30.400 seconds, meaning it was a battle between the two Mercedes drivers.
Bottas, running ahead on track, jumped to top spot with a lap of one minute, 30.147 seconds, only for Hamilton to reclaim pole position for good with a one minute, 30.029 seconds.
Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were fourth and fifth for Red Bull Racing, with the former almost seven tenths off pole, but ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari.
Raikkonen posted his time of one minute, 31.057 seconds before the red flag, but when he headed out to improve had an oversteer moment into Turn 4 and was unable to improve.
Hamilton, Bottas, Ricciardo and Verstappen will all start the French Grand Prix using supersoft Pirellis, having used the slower tyres to set their Q2 times.
Ferrari, by contrast, ran in Q2 with the ultrasofts that were favoured by everyone else throughout qualifying on both Vettel and Raikkonen’s car.
Carlos Sainz Jr took best-of-the rest honours for Renault in seventh place, just over a second slower than Raikkonen.
Sauber rookie star Charles Leclerc reached Q3 for the first time in his Formula 1 career and beat Haas driver Kevin Magnussen to eighth place.
Grosjean was classified tenth after failing to set a time during Q3 thanks to the shunt on his first flying lap.
The Haas driver spun at the exit of the Turn 3 right-hander after the rear stepped out and slid nose-first into the Turn 4 barrier, reporting he was unable to engage reverse to recover.
Esteban Ocon was the fastest of those eliminated in Q2 amid some very light drizzle thanks to being bumped by Leclerc moments after jumping up into the top ten with his final flier.
Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg was also eliminated despite his late improvement, ending up just six hundredths off the top ten despite what he described as “a very good lap”.
That put him ahead of the second Force India of Sergio Perez and Piere Gasly’s Toro Rosso.
Marcus Ericsson was P15 for Sauber and did well to reach Q3 having crashed during free practice session.
As a result, he missed second practice and then was limited to just three laps in final practice thanks to rain before qualifying.
McLaren produced its worst qualifying performance of the season, with both of its cars eliminated in Q1.
Fernando Alonso’s late lap was only good enough for P16, 0.027 seconds slower than Hulkenberg and half-a-tenth ahead of the Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley.
Such a contrast to Alonso when racing in France. A week ago, scored pole position and won the famous endurance race Le Mans for Toyota in the WEC. As for Formula 1, it was back to reality. This was a real struggle for the McLaren driver.
Hartley will start at the back of the grid thanks to taking new engine components in the morning, and complained that wind, traffic and some spots of rain late in Q1 compromised his run.
Stoffel Vandoorne was P18 fastest in the second McLaren, ahead of Williams duo Sergey Sirotkin – who escaped action after an investigation for potentially impeding Hulkenberg – and Lance Stroll.
Stroll had an off-track moment at Turn 2 on his final run, reporting to the team that he hit the floor hard as he rattled over the kerbs.
So a return back to form for Mercedes. A front row starting position for Hamilton and Bottas. Championship leader Vettel is just third. The French Grand Prix should be fascinating.
Qualifying positions, French Grand Prix:
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m30.029s
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1m30.147s
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m30.400s
4 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Renault 1m30.705s
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull-Renault 1m30.895s
6 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m31.057s
7 Carlos Sainz Renault 1m32.126s
8 Charles Leclerc Sauber-Ferrari 1m32.635s
9 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1m32.930s
10 Romain Grosjean Haas-Ferrari –
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 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren-Renault 1m33.162s
18 Sergey Sirotkin Williams-Mercedes 1m33.636s
19 Lance Stroll Williams-Mercedes 1m33.729s
20 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso-Honda 1m33.025s