Lewis Hamilton storms to pole for F1 French Grand Prix

• Hamilton holds off challenge of Bottas and Leclerc
• ‘Valtteri goes in and puts in bloody good laps every time’

For Lewis Hamilton, pole at the French Grand Prix seemed an almost inevitable conclusion for a driver clearly enjoying a confidence and touch in a Mercedes that is exceptional even by his own standards. In contrast for Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, what has already been a difficult weekend looks set to end only in another largely thankless slog on Sunday afternoon after he could manage only seventh. Indeed, such was the gap between Mercedes and Ferrari, for the first time this season Hamilton clearly indicated his battle for the title was now with his teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton has 86 career poles. This is his third this season and with five wins already his form here suggests another is well within his grasp. He is, as he put it in France, firing on all cylinders. Calm and collected enough to put in an almost flawless performance with equanimity.

Hamilton delivered a piece of controlled, precision driving to secure pole with two clinical laps. He had set the pace with a strong opener on the first hot runs in Q3 with a time of 1 minute 28.488 seconds.

On their second outings, Hamilton found another level altogether; he was almost half a second up, but for losing time at the last two corners. He still had enough, however, and concluded with a 1m 28.319sec lap, a track record. Bottas was almost three-tenths back in second but Mercedes were in a different class. Charles Leclerc finished in third for Ferrari, sixth-tenths down.

Hamilton has a 29-point advantage over Bottas and is 62 points clear of Vettel. Ferrari trail Mercedes by 123 points in the constructors’ championship and, with 14 races remaining, for the first time this season there appeared to be an admission from Hamilton that his focus is now on his teammate in the title fight.

“I do feel strong, each weekend I feel I start on the right foot but Valtteri goes in and puts in bloody good laps every time,” he said. “I am constantly being pushed by Valtteri.”

Hamilton has talked up Ferrari’s challenge until now but after Mercedes dominated all weekend in France, he appeared to now consider it a two-horse chase.

“There are some races where we as a team have not been pushed as hard as we would like to be by the others,” he said. “Nonetheless there is still the battle within us.

“In a lot of the races there has been half a tenth to a tenth and a half between Valtteri and I. So I still have my work cut out, I still have to perform, still have to deliver. The work ethic is exactly the same, the stress is exactly the same as if we were fighting with the Ferraris.”

Of concern for Bottas, however, was that Hamilton knows he is entering the period of the year when his form generally only improves. “It usually gets better when I get to this point of the season,” he added. “I am definitely getting more comfortable with the car. I don’t expect that to stop.”

Ferrari and Vettel, however, have faced a weekend that reflects their season. Vettel had been given a five-second penalty after he was pressured into an error by Hamilton and went off at the last round in Canada. The team have since pursued a review of the decision which was summarily dismissed by the stewards on Friday. They were left angry and disappointed, although what they had cited as “overwhelming” evidence in their favour turned out to be distinctly underwhelming and was judged to be irrelevant.

Hamilton’s reaction at learning Ferrari were putting forward Sky pundit’s Karun Chandhok’s analysis as part of their case perhaps summed up the weakness of the Scuderia’s position. “I heard it was Karun Chandhok’s video that was the new evidence so I was pretty relaxed after that,” he said to considerable laughter.

Unsettled as Ferrari have been by underperforming all season, they have reeled from errors, bad luck and an inability to catch or better Mercedes even when they have an advantage. In France, Vettel had to abort his first hot lap after he went wide when he missed an upshift at turn nine and then just could not find the grip on his last shot in Q3.

As inconsistency has dogged his and Ferrari’s season, so it had blighted his qualifying. “I am not happy with that and not happy to not extract the maximum today,” he said. “I did not have a good feel for the car. It is the inconsistency that made it difficult. Some laps it felt really good, others didn’t.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was in fourth, but there was a real shot in the arm for McLaren. Britain’s Lando Norris put in a superb lap to take the highest grid position of his F1 career in fifth, one place ahead of his more experienced teammate, Spain’s Carlos Sainz.

Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was in eighth, Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly in ninth and Antonio Giovinazzi in the Alfa Romeo was in 10th.

Alexander Albon was in 11th for Toro Rosso, with Kimi Räikkönen in 12th for Alfa Romeo in front of the Renault of Nico Hülkenberg, Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez and the Haas of Kevin Magnussen.

Daniil Kvyat was in 15th for Toro Rosso in front of the Haas of Romain Grosjean and the Racing Point of Lance Stroll. George Russell and Robert Kubica were in 19th and 20th for Williams. Russell will start form the back of the grid for an ERS change and Kyvat will be in 19 after a penalty for taking a new power unit.

Contributor

Giles Richards at Paul Ricard

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