LE CASTELLET: Max Verstappen claimed pole on Saturday for the French Grand Prix with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes alongside the Red Bull driver on the front row to lay the foundations for another gripping installment in this season’s delicately poised title battle.
Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes starts on the second row with Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez.
Verstappen leads Hamilton by just four points in the Formula One world championship ahead of the seventh race of the season at the Circuit Paul Ricard on Sunday.
Hamilton won from pole the last two races staged at Le Castellet in 2018 and 2019, but Verstappen had approached qualifying as the man to beat after dominating the final two practice sessions.
Verstappen, claiming his first pole since the season-opener in Bahrain, is anxious to translate pole into a win after a shredded tire robbed him of almost certain victory in Baku last time out.
“So far it’s been a really positive weekend, on a track that is normally difficult for us. To get pole position was really nice.
“Great day for us but we have to finish it off tomorrow and get 25 points — which we lost in Baku. Great promise from our side.”
After struggling to keep tabs with his Red Bull rival in practice Hamilton was relieved to narrow the gap between them to 0.258s.
“We’ll keep pushing, keep fighting and giving it everything. Their long-run pace is a tenth or two quicker than us, but the car’s in a much different place now,” said the seven-time world champion.
“We’re going to fight for a chance into turn one and there could be some interesting strategy tomorrow, and I think there could be some rain, so a chance to see a rain master,” he added.
Carlos Sainz for Ferrari posted the fifth quickest time in qualifying to seal a third row spot with Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri joining him.
Then came Sainz’s teammate Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Lando Norris with Fernando Alonso (Alpine) and Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) completing the top 10.
With qualifying watched by a 15,000-strong crowd allowed in after the easing of coronavirus restrictions, Q1 was only four minutes old when it was red-flagged after Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda lost control of his Alpha Tauri coming out of turn one, his car pirouetting gracefully into the safety barrier.
This was the fourth time out of seven Tsunoda has failed to progress to Q2.
With 22 seconds left of Q1 Mick Schumacher’s Haas crashed into a barrier, cruel luck for the German after making it into Q2 for the very first time in his fledgling F1 career but unable to take part with his car requiring repairs.
Verstappen topped Q1 with Hamilton, Perez and Bottas closest.
The Mercedes duo rose to the top of the times in Q2, with Bottas edging Hamilton who was much punchier than he had been in practice. Perez and Verstappen were next, setting up an intriguing Q3 skirmish for the Provencal pole.
After the first throw of the Q3 dice it was Verstappen on provisional pole with Hamilton alongside him, and that is how it ended after the final flurry of flying laps.
Hamilton and Mercedes were thankful to return to a traditional circuit after disastrous performances on the streets of Monaco and Baku.
But on the evidence of this qualifying the two teams’ cars are pretty equally matched.
One man relishing the compelling contest is Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff who said: “I think it’s fantastic what has been thrown at us (this season). No year is easy but this year? It’s awesome.”