Lewis Hamilton took his 75th career pole position in qualifying at the Circuit Paul Ricard for the first Formula 1 French Grand Prix in a decade. Hamilton edged team-mate Valtteri Bottas by just over a tenth of a second with championship leader Sebastian Vettel third and three tenths down on the Briton.
At the start of Q1, Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen was the first of the top three team drivers to set a time and his 1:31.823 was good enough to push Haas’ Romain Grosjean out of P1. The Dutchman was edged out of top spot by Bottas and then dropped to third as Hamilton moved to the top of the order with a lap of 1:31.589.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen briefly moved to the front before Verstappen again went quickest. His time in P1 was also short, however, as Hamilton put in another good lap to claim Q1’s fastest time with a lap of 1:31.271, over two tenths clear of Verstappen.
At the bottom of the order, the drivers in the drop zone as the session drew to a close were P16 man Stoffel Vandoorne, followed by Force India’s Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, followed By Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll.
There were no problems for the Force India pair in the final runs, with Ocon vaulting to P12 a place ahead of Perez. Their progress mean that McLaren’s Fernando Alonso slid down the order to become the first man eliminated in P16. He went out ahead of Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley, Vandoorne, Sirotkin and Stroll.
Light rain began to fall as Q2 got underway but with conditions not being adversely affected the field took to the circuit on dry tyres, with the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers trying to make it through on supersoft tyres.
Hamilton eventually topped the order with a lap of 1:30.645 on the red-banded rubber. His lap put him just under a tenth of a second clear of the ultrasoft-shod Sebastian Vettel, with Raikkonen, who also used ultrasofts, third with a time of 1:30.772.
Verstappen took fourth ahead of Bottas, Grosjean and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, as he improved on a second run on supersofts, but Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo settled for P8 as he slowed right down at the end of the third sector while on ultrasoft tyres on his final run.
Carlos Sainz made it through to Q3 in P9, while Charles Leclerc scored his first Q3 berth and Sauber’s first of the season with P10.
The first runs of Q3 saw Hamilton establish himself in provisional pole with a time of 1:30.222, just 0.095s ahead of Bottas, with Vettel in P3 on a time of 1:30.400. Verstappen held fourth ahead of Ricciardo, Raikkonen and Sainz.
Further back on track Grosjean lost control in Turn 4 and slid off into the barriers. The crash brought out the red flags.
The action resumed six minutes later, with a little under six minutes left on the clock and at the top it was only the Mercedes drivers who managed to find an improvement in the final runs. First Bottas made time in the third sector to take pole position with a time of 1:30.147 but Hamilton then found more, posting a final lap of 1:30.029 to take his 75th career pole position.
Behind the Mercedes pair Vettel and the Red Bull drivers settled on their first run times, with Raikkonen taking sixth. Sainz qualified well to take seventh on a day when his team-mate could only manage P12, but perhaps the best performance beyond pole position went to Leclerc, who took eighth place, Sauber’s best qualifying performance since Nico Hulkenberg qualified in fourth place for the 2013 US Grand Prix. Ninth place in today’s session went to Magnussen, with the unfortunate Grosjean in 10th place.