LE CASTELLET, FRANCE (AFP) - Charles Leclerc scorched to a sizzling pole position with a commanding lap in Saturday’s (July 23) sun-baked qualifying session at the French Grand Prix, the Ferrari driver beating series leader and world champion Max Verstappen of Red Bull by 0.304 seconds.
The 24-year-old Monegasque driver clocked a best lap of one minute and 30.872 seconds to claim his seventh pole this year and the 16th of his career in front of a sell-out crowd at the Paul Ricard circuit.
Leclerc was assisted by Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz giving him a decisive slip-streaming ‘tow’ on the long back straight.
“Grande Carlos!” said Leclerc on his slowing down lap.
The Spaniard, very fast throughout practice, will start Sunday’s race from the back of the grid after taking penalties for new engine components.
Verstappen was second behind Leclerc ahead of Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez with seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton fourth for Mercedes ahead of Lando Norris of McLaren and George Russell in the second Mercedes.
“It was a great lap,” said Leclerc, who is bidding to complete a hat-trick of Ferrari victories and reduce Verstappen’s 38 points lead in the title race. “But I have to thank Carlos for his help – and I hope he can get forward and challenge in the race.”
Verstappen said he felt his car lacked grip in the hot and windy conditions. “It was a bit more tricky than I hoped for, but we have a decent race car and great pace on the straights. So, we will see tomorrow, but Ferrari are clearly very quick again.”
Perez said he was glad to have rediscovered some form after struggling in recent weeks. “It’s been a good recovery and the target is to recover some more and beat those red cars. They looked strong today.”
Two-time champion Fernando Alonso was seventh for Alpine ahead of Yuki Tsunoda of Alpha Tauri with both Sainz and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen opting not to clock laps in Q3 because of their grid penalties.
They will start together from the back row after taking new engine parts.
In searing heat, with an air temperature of 33 degrees and the track at 56, local hope Pierre Gasly set the early pace in Q1 before Leclerc went top in 1:31.727, six-tenths faster than Perez who went second with his opening lap.
Verstappen’s first effort lifted him to second, a tenth off the Ferrari, while the Mercedes men were caught out when Alex Albon spun in his Williams, causing problems for both drivers in his wake.
After a final flurry, it was Leclerc, Verstappen and Sainz at the top ahead of Perez and elimination for the luckless Gasly in his Alpha Tauri, Lance Stroll in his Aston Martin, Guanyu Zhou of Alfa Romeo, Mick Schumacher of Haas and Nicholas Lqtifi in the second Williams.
Schumacher had risen briefly to 10th with a late lap that was deleted for exceeding track limits. His demise was a reprieve for Albon who progressed to Q2 in 15th.
In Q2, Hamilton, Norris and Perez enjoyed brief moments on top before Verstappen took command in 1:31.990 and stayed on top until Sainz delivered an almighty lap.
The Spaniard clocked 1:31.081 on a new set of sort tyres to outpace Verstappen by nine-tenths, a stunning advantage and performance. By contrast, Mercedes appeared to be floundering until the final minute.
Late efforts by both Hamilton and Russell enabled them to progress to the ‘top ten shootout’.
Out went Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren, Esteban Ocon in the second Alpine, Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, two-time champion Sebastian Vettel of Aston Martin and Albon.
The Q3 session began with Perez setting an early time that was swiftly beaten by Leclerc, with the Monegasque taking advantage of a tow from Sainz to slipstream him on the back straight and go top.
Verstappen could not beat it and settled for second, 0.008 seconds behind, a margin that hinted at superior Red Bull pace. Perez was third ahead of Russell and Hamilton, Sainz not clocking a time.
Ferrari repeated their tactic, with Sainz on used tyres, for Leclerc’s second run and with the aid of a rapid opening sector he grabbed pole.