Max Verstappen seizes pole for French GP from Mercedes

Max Verstappen (NLD), Red Bull Racing 19.06.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard
© XPB 

Max Verstappen successfully claimed pole position for Red Bull for the first time at the Circuit Paul Ricard for this weekend's French Grand Prix, breaking Mercedes' traditional grip on the front row at Le Castellet.

But Lewis Hamilton was able to take second place on the grid with Valtteri Bottas in third ahead of Sergio Perez, while Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly were best of the rest.

The session saw two early red flags for accidents involving Yuki Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher, which caught out Lance Stroll who was left unable to set a time in Q1 as a result.

Friday's blue skies and sunshine had disappeared overnight and replaced by more overcast conditions. However it remained uncomfortably muggy, and track temperatures had already picked up to 43C which was much higher than it had been for final practice, during which several drivers fell foul of new track limits at turn 6.

Yuki Tsunoda (JPN) AlphaTauri AT02 crashed out of qualifying. 19.06.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard

Q1: Verstappen fastest, Stroll out after red flags for Tsunoda and Schumacher

Antonio Giovinazzi was first to take to the track in the Alfa Romeo when the lights at the end of pit lane went green. Others soon followed, but before anyone could set a lap time there was an immediate red flag after AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda clipped the inside kerb on the entry to turn 2 which threw him off into light contact with the barriers. Although the car was still running, Tsunoda was stuck in neutral unable to find a gear to get him out of trouble. The recovery truck was finally deployed meaning he will be starting from the back of the grid tomorrow.

The session resumed after a nine minute pause with just over 14 minutes remaining on the clock. This time everyone was keen to get straight to work with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc among the vanguard, while Lewis Hamilton was talking with the Mercedes pit wall about hanging back to avoid the congestion only to be instructed that time was pressing. Within a minute of the green light, all 19 cars still in contention had taken to the track on the soft compound.

Leclerc set the first time of the session with a time of 1:33.187s but this was soon bettered not just by his team mate Carlos Sainz but even Williams' George Russell. The top spot was then taken by Valtteri Bottas with a 1:31.669s, but the Red Bulls were in superior form with Max Verstappen's 1:31.001s picking up where he'd left off at the end of FP3 and Sergio Perez half a second slower in second place. Lewis Hamilton's first effort was only good enough for fourth to put him ahead of Pierre Gasly, Lando Norris, Sebastian Vettel, Esteban Ocon, Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo.

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari SF-21 at the head of the queue at the pit lane exit. 19.06.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard

Lance Stroll's first lap time was deleted for exceeding track limits leaving the Aston Martin at the bottom of the timings. Leclerc had also found himself pushed down into the elimination zone, but his follow-up lap elevated him to the relative safety of 11th. Those now at risk of failing to make the second round were Stroll, Nicholas Latifi, Kimi Raikkonen and Nikita Mazepin.

A better second effort from Hamilton saw him climb to second where he split the two Red Bulls, with Norris also improving to fifth ahead of Gasly and Sainz. Now the focus was on Stroll, still without a time with only three minutes remaining in the session, and with traffic streaming coming out of pit lane ahead of him thwarting his initial run. Also at risk was Russell who was on the bubble in 15th place but looking to be on a stronger lap.

Neither driver got a chance to show what they could do, as Mick Schumacher lost the rear of the Haas and found the wall at the exit of turn 6 to trigger another red flag stoppage, with no time left to resume Q1. It meant disaster for Stroll who was now out of the session, but relief for Russell who had squeaked through by just two thousandths of a second from his Williams team mate Latifi who missed the cut along with Raikkonen, Mazepin, Stroll and Tsunoda.

The Haas VF-21 of Mick Schumacher (GER) Haas F1 Team is recovered back to the pits on the back of a truck after he crashed in qualifying. 19.06.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard

Q2: Bottas and Hamilton pip Perez and Verstappen, as Ocon and Vettel eliminated

There was a slightly extended break before the second round got underway, with only 14 cars left to take part as Schumacher's car was recovered, an overnight gearbox change now looking possible which would drop him to the back of the field for tomorrow's race.

For everyone else, the big question mark for Q2 was tyre strategy: no one was keen to have to start Sunday on the soft tyre, so everyone bar Russell was bolting on the medium compound and hoping to still find the speed needed to make it into the final top ten pole shoot-out round.

Pierre Gasly took the early honours with a lap of 1:31.353s, with Sainz going two tenths quicker shortly afterwards. Neither Mercedes could beat that - Bottas slotting into second and Hamilton fourth behind Gasly. However Perez and Verstappen were more than up to the task, with Perez' 1:30.971s a notable tenth quicker than Verstappen. Russell's first run saw him in 11th after Norris' lap was deleted for exceeding track limits and the Alpines of Ocon and Alonso left it late to come out to play. When they finally opened their Q2 account, Alonso found the relative safety of seventh while Ocon was left on less secure ground in ninth.

Hamilton ensured his progression to the final round by going top with 1:30.959s on the same set of mediums, 0.012s quicker than Perez. Norris was also able to manage to make a lap stick that was good enough for seventh while Ricciardo improved his own time to go ninth. That was the straw that sent Ocon into the drop zone with Vettel, Russell and Giovinazzi, who now moved to the soft tyres in a final Hail Mary gambit to find the time needed to make it through. Ricciardo felt the need to cover this by taking softs as well, but the man on the bubble now was Leclerc and he was committed to the mediums. Meanwhile Norris was told to return to pit lane without setting a lap after the McLaren pit wall detected a minor issue, leaving him vulnerable in seventh.

Leclerc managed to improve just enough to move to ninth ahead of Ricciardo, while Ocon, Vettel and Giovinazzi all failed to find sufficient time to crack the top ten. That took the pressure off Ricciardo, who was able to abort his lap without setting a time on the red walled compound after all. Meanwhile at the other end of the timesheets Bottas secured late glory, going top by just 0.053s from Hamilton.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB16B reflected in a fire marshal's helmet visor. 19.06.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 7, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard

Q3: Verstappen holds on to pole from Hamilton and Bottas

AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly was head boy as the cars lined up to head out for the final round of qualifying, recording the first time of Q3 with a lap of 1:31.410s that was promptly deleted for narrowly exceeding track limits at turn 6.

Sainz briefly took over the top spot but then it was Verstappen quickest with a time of 1:30.325s, almost four tenths quicker than Hamilton and half a second faster than Perez, with Bottas slipping into fourth ahead of Sainz, Norris, Alonso, Leclerc and Ricciardo with everyone bar Alonso and Ricciardo having reverted to the soft compound for this first run following the intermission.

There was still time for one more run, with Gasly eager to get back out. This time his run was good enough for fourth, although this was soon bumped down a place by a better effort from Sainz. Verstappen also found more time out of the Red Bull to extend his hold on pole with a time of 1:29.990s, but Hamilton and Bottas dug deep to thwart Perez and take second and third place.

With Sainz and Gasly holding on to prove best of the rest, Leclerc was left in seventh ahead of Norris with the top ten for tomorrow's race filled by Alonso and Ricciardo.

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