Against the painted symmetry of the Paul Ricard circuit, Ferrari excelled in qualifying for the French Grand Prix with a suitably artistic display of synchronised scarlet teamwork. So often the butt of criticism for poor strategy, the Scuderia pulled off an Italian job to perfection, ensuring Charles Leclerc secured pole for Sunday’s race.
He put in a fine lap for Ferrari but was aided by a tow from his teammate, Carlos Sainz, that helped him clinch pole, beating the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez into second and third. Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were fourth and sixth – decent enough given their season but far from the improvement Mercedes had hoped for. An end to their winless run seems as far off as ever.
Sainz finished in ninth but, with the team knowing he would start from the back row of the grid after taking new power unit components, they opted to use him tactically to Leclerc’s advantage.
Leclerc had set the pace on his first hot lap in Q3 after enjoying a slipstream from Sainz on the Mistral straight. It was a vital advantage as Verstappen was breathing down his neck and crossed the line eight-thousandths of a second down, setting up a mighty head-to-head for the final runs.
Ferrari repeated their tactics on the second hot laps with Sainz leading Leclerc but Red Bull did not use Pérez similarly for Verstappen, instead choosing to ensure they had two drivers in the mix at the front of the race. Once more Leclerc, in Sainz’s wake with the two a shimmering blur of red, line astern in the Provence sunshine, took advantage before the Spaniard elegantly peeled off from his path. Leclerc sailed past and smashed his previous lap with a 1min 30.872sec. Verstappen could not match it and was three-tenths back.
“I have to say thanks to Carlos for the help,” Leclerc said. “Carlos judged it perfectly and got out of the way at the right moment. I think [the time gained] is around two-tenths, so it’s significant. It would have been a lot tighter with Max without the tow.”
Hamilton will reach his 300th race on Sunday but it is highly unlikely to be the celebratory affair he might have hoped for. Despite Mercedes’ optimism of moving toward the frontrunners, their pace in qualifying appeared to suggest they are no closer. Hamilton was nine-tenths back on Leclerc while Russell was more than a second in arrears. Hamilton was confounded, especially after their significant improvements at Silverstone.
“I finished it and thought that was an awesome lap but I was still nine-tenths off,” he said. “I am not sure why that gap has got bigger over these two races. They are in their own league performance-wise. I came here thinking last race we were three- or four-tenths off and I thought maybe this weekend we would be two- or three-tenths off and we have been a second off.”
The 37-year-old, who is in his 16th season in the sport, has said he is confident Mercedes can still compete for wins but they are clearly not there yet. His outstanding record of having won at least once in every season in F1 since 2007 looks to be under genuine threat.
The Mercedes principal, Toto Wolff, commended his driver but in so doing admitted the W13 car remained far from where it should be. “Lewis has probably extracted more than the car has at the moment,” he said. “We knew that once we got the new tyres on and we are driving the car in anger that we would be there in a third and fourth, like we have been all season. But it’s just not good enough.”
Mercedes deployed a new nose in France and in high temperatures it was hoped the circuit, with its smooth, flat surface and high-speed configuration, would suit their revised car. Yet the gap to Leclerc remains a chasm. They will expect a better race pace, as will Red Bull, but Leclerc is on a roll.
He needs to make the place count. With six victories Verstappen has established a dominant position in the title race and enjoys a 38-point advantage over the Monegasque driver in second place and 57 points on Pérez.
Lando Norris was fifth for McLaren, Fernando Alonso in seventh for Alpine and Yuki Tsunoda eighth for AlphaTauri. Kevin Magnussen was in 10th place but will start from the back of the grid having taken new power unit elements.
Daniel Ricciardo was in 11th for McLaren and Esteban Ocon in 12th for Alpine. Valtteri Bottas was 13th for Alfa Romeo, Sebastian Vettel 14th for Aston Martin and Alexander Albon 15th for Williams.
Pierre Gasly was in 16th for AlphaTauri, Lance Stroll in 17th for Aston Martin with Guanyu Zhou in 18th for Alfa Romeo. Mick Schumacher was 19th for Haas and Nicholas Latifi in 20th for Williams.