At the first qualifying session at the Circuit Paul Ricard for 28 years, it was Lewis Hamilton who came out on top, with team mate Valtteri Bottas second as Mercedes stamped their dominance on Le Castellet.
After a washed-out FP3, which witnessed only 10 minutes of meaningful running, qualifying saw the drivers get back up to speed at a much drier Paul Ricard. Although the session saw occasional patches of light rain, it wasn't enough to stop Hamilton going fastest in all three phases, making the most of the upgrades that Mercedes have brought to France to extend his record of pole positions. Not bad for a driver who apparently did no simulator running around Paul Ricard ahead of the French Grand Prix.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was third, followed by the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, and the sister Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen in sixth. Renault’s Carlos Sainz was P7, with Sauber’s Charles Leclerc a stunning eighth, ahead of the two Haas cars of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, although the latter failed to set a Q3 time after putting his car in the wall at Turn 3 ahead of his home race.
Here’s how the sessions unfolded beneath the moody skies of Le Castellet…
Q1 – SHOCKER FOR MCLAREN AS BOTH CARS DROP OUT
It was a session to forget for the McLaren team. Already under a cloud following some heated exchanges with the press this weekend, Q1 saw both of the team’s drivers failing to make it through to Q2, with Fernando Alonso’s 16th quickest time some 1.4 seconds shy of P2 man Verstappen’s effort, despite both cars using the same Renault powerplant. It’s only six days since Alonso was on the top step of the Le Mans podium, but that must seem like an eternity ago now.
Behind Alonso in P16 came the Toro Rosso of Brendon Hartley, the sister McLaren of Stoffel Vandoorne and the two Williams cars of Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll, with the Canadian managing to wheelie his FW41 at Turn 2 after going off track and hitting a sausage kerb. Vandoorne, Sirotkin and Stroll will all jump up a position on race day, however, when Hartley takes a penalty for taking on new power unit elements following engine issues on Friday.
It was a happier Q1 for Sauber, with both Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson making it through the session for the first time in 2018, while Grosjean also impressed early on to go fourth fastest in the Haas as Hamilton, Verstappen and Raikkonen claimed the top three times.
Q2 – LECLERC STARS AS HAMILTON FASTEST AGAIN
The drivers were queuing up at the end of the pit lane minutes before Q2 started. The reason? The rain had returned to Paul Ricard, albeit very lightly. Despite that, all drivers headed out on dry tyres, with nearly everyone managing to better their Q1 times. Leclerc was the hero of the session, dragging his Sauber through into Q3 by going P10, with a time around seven-tenths faster than team mate Ericsson, who ended up as the slowest of the runners in P15.
Force India would have been disappointed to lose both cars in Q2 after receiving Mercedes’ updated engine in France, with Esteban Ocon going P11 and Sergio Perez P13. It was also an underwhelming lap for Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, who had to watch team mate Carlos Sainz go through into Q3 while he could only manage 13th fastest, while Pierre Gasly, who had shown great pace in his Toro Rosso during Friday’s practice sessions, also missed out, finishing P14.
Hamilton led the field yet again, while both Red Bulls - like the Mercedes - went for an alternative strategy to Ferrari and the rest of the top ten, setting their fastest times on the harder, red-walled supersoft tyres, making them an interesting prospect for the race.
Q3 – HAMILTON CLAIMS ‘DIAMOND’ POLE AS GROSJEAN CRASHES
With the rain having cleared off, it was a straight shoot-out for pole as the drivers waded into battle for Q3. But with just four minutes of the session gone, Grosjean asked too much of his Haas at Turn 3 and spun into the wall, bringing out the red flags and stopping the clock. It was a disappointing end to a session that had promised so much for the Frenchman, but the damage to his VF-18 appeared light as it was craned out of harm’s way.
As the nine remaining drivers returned to the track, it was soon apparent that there weren’t going to be any last minute upsets to disturb Mercedes’ stately progress. Sebastian Vettel got closest, but a scrappy final effort saw him end up in third. Ahead of him, Hamilton held his nerve to edge team mate Bottas by 0.118s and claim the 75th pole position of his career, and at the 26th different circuit to boot. In P4 and P5 came the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo, while Raikkonen couldn’t string a decent lap together and ended up sixth.
Sainz in seventh will have been pleased to out-qualify Renault team mate Hulkenberg for only the third time this year, while the two Haas cars of Magnussen and Grosjean, who failed to get a time on the board before his excursion into the barrier, were P9 and P10.
And yes, that means that not only did Leclerc make it into Q3, he even managed to make a dent in the timesheets by finishing P8 in what was one of the great qualifying efforts of the season so far. A quite amazing performance from the driver in the field who was born closest to the Circuit Paul Ricard, but the day belonged to Hamilton, with Mercedes' quadruple world champion continuing to re-write the record books.
The key quote
“It wasn’t too bad. Impeccable… It feels great to be back in France, such a beautiful place. We got a great response from the crowd here. Really excited to come to the first Grand Prix here at Paul Ricard for a long, long time. And to be on the front is a great showing of the hard work from the guys and my team.” – Lewis Hamilton.
The key stats
Lewis Hamilton’s pole was the 75th of his career, at the 26th different venue – both extensions of his own records.
It was Charles Leclerc’s first ever appearance Q3, while he’s also now made it past Q1 at the last five consecutive races.
Meanwhile, Leclerc’s team mate Marcus Ericsson also made his first appearance in Q2 this season – his first appearance in Q2 since China 2017, actually.
Kimi Raikkonen continues his record of Q3 appearances, meanwhile – Paul Ricard marked the Finn’s 38th consecutive time of making it into the final phase of qualifying, although his sixth place on the grid equalled his worst qualifying of the season.
And while we’re talking about Q3 streaks, Carlos Sainz maintained his own record in that department, having made it out of Q2 at every race this season so far.
Valtteri Bottas has now been on the front row three times in the last four races, but has yet to take a pole in 2018.
Sebastian Vettel maintains his record of qualifying in the top three for every race so far this season.
Paul Ricard saw McLaren’s worst qualifying of the year, with both cars failing it to make it past Q1 for the first time since the Azerbaijan Grand Prix of 2017, almost exactly a year ago.
And while we’re analysing the doom and gloom, Williams failed to get either car out of Q1 for the fifth time this season, the worst record of any team in 2018.
Mercedes took their 52nd front row lock-out, and are now just 10 shy of the record. And which two teams jointly hold that record? That would be McLaren and Williams. How times change…
Onboard pole lap