Le Castellet (France): Paul Ricard hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Red Bull in the past, but Max Verstappen ripped up the formbook in French Grand Prix qualifying to fend off title rival Lewis Hamilton and take sensational pole position.
The French track, which returned to the calendar in 2018, has traditionally been a Mercedes stronghold, with Hamilton taking pole and victory in each edition, but this time it was Red Bull who looked like the ones to beat.
Verstappen set the early pace in Q3, four tenths of a second quicker than Hamilton, but things heated up in the second runs as Hamilton went quickest in the first sector. Verstappen responded with a purple second and final sector to better his time and take his second pole of the season.
Hamilton slotted into second, alongside the Dutchman, with Valtteri Bottas taking third as Mercedes confirmed a bounce back in performance after two very difficult weekends in Monaco and Azerbaijan.
Sergio Perez was a fourth, albeit it half a second adrift of Red Bull team mate Verstappen, while Carlos Sainz outqualified the other Ferrari of Charles Leclerc for only the second time this season as he ended up fifth.
Pierre Gasly gave the French fans in the grandstands plenty to smile about with sixth, in what is his fifth top-six starting spot in seven Grand Prix weekends this year. Leclerc, pole-sitter in the last two races, could only manage seventh as he was beaten by a team mate for the first time at Paul Ricard.
It was a tougher day for McLaren, as while they got both cars into Q3, they were down towards the bottom of the pile with Lando Norris eighth and Daniel Ricciardo a tenth further back in 10th.
They were separated by Fernando Alonso, the sole representative for Alpine in Q3 in the team’s home race, with the Spaniard making it four Q3 appearances in seven this season. His team mate and home favourite Ocon will start 11th.
With several thousand fans in the grandstands watching on, qualifying got under way in glorious conditions. But it was just six minutes old when FIA Race Director Michael Masi was forced to throw the red flag after Yuki Tsunoda lost control of his AlphaTauri at Turn 2 and slid into the barriers.
When running got back under way, Verstappen set a scintillating pace with a lap that was more than six tenths of a second quicker than Valtteri Bottas. His main title rival Lewis Hamilton did a second fast lap on the same set of tyres to move into second, but he was still 0.2s off.
Elsewhere, Lance Stroll had his first lap time deleted for exceeding track limits. He bolted on a fresh set of tyres for a second run, but backed out of it with just two minutes to go, leaving him with one shot to get to Q2.
Unfortunately for the Canadian, he didn’t get that chance as another red flag was required when Mick Schumacher hit the barriers hard – and that meant everyone’s final runs had to be aborted.
1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
3 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
4 Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
5 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)