Charles Leclerc will start on pole position for the French Grand Prix after a superb final lap of qualifying saw off the threat of Max Verstappen.
Leclerc and Verstappen, who are locked in a thrilling title battle, were split by just 0.008s heading into the closing stages but the Ferrari driver found huge improvement when it mattered most and took pole by three-tenths of a second.
Leclerc was helped by a tow from team-mate Carlos Sainz – who will be at the back of the grid for Sunday’s race due to engine penalties – and the result continues his new-found momentum as he bids to eat into Verstappen’s 38-point lead.
“Without Carlos, it would have been much closer, so a huge thanks to him,” said Leclerc.
Sergio Perez was third for the Red Bull – meaning Leclerc will have two charging Bulls to contend with – and he will be joined on the second row by Lewis Hamilton, although Mercedes yet again struggled at Paul Ricard.
Hamilton was the lead Silver Arrow but a whopping 0.893s off Leclerc, while George Russell was outpaced by Lando Norris after an epic final effort from the Brit in an upgraded McLaren landed him fifth.
Daniel Ricciardo failed to make it through to Q3, along with both French drivers Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly in front of a sell-out crowd.
Fernando Alonso and Yuki Tsunoda were seventh and eighth as Sainz and the similarly penalised over engine changes Kevin Magnussen failed to set lap times in the final shootout.
Sunday’s race is live on Sky Sports F1 at 2pm, with build-up from 12.30pm.
French GP Qualifying: Top 10
1) Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
2) Max Verstappen, Red Bull
3) Sergio Perez, Red Bull
4) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
5) Lando Norris, McLaren
6) George Russell, Mercedes
7) Fernando Alonso, Alpine
8) Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri
9) Carlos Sainz, Ferrari*
10) Kevin Magnussen, Haas*
*will start at the back of the grid due to engine penalties
Leclerc on top for now but is Verstappen the favourite?
Leclerc’s efforts put him in the ideal position to claim Ferrari’s third victory in a row, with the Scuderia enjoying a purple patch through the European season against Red Bull after car upgrades.
“I’ve struggled all weekend to put a lap together and I managed to do it,” said Leclerc, who was given a boost down the straights by following Sainz.
However, tougher tasks lie ahead. Leclerc has to battle two Red Bulls singlehandedly and there are also suspicions that Verstappen may just be too fast for the Monegasque given his car’s straight-line speed.
“I have a feeling that they might be making a mistake with the setup,” said Sky Sports F1’s Nico Rosberg, the 2016 world champion. “I think they have too much downforce on that car.
“When you have more downforce on, it means you go faster in the corners and load the tyres more and also cause tyre wear and stress them. I really think that could cause them trouble tomorrow in the race and that would be an advantage for Red Bull.”
He added: “Honestly, looking at Verstappen’s pace from Friday when he was practicing for the race, I would definitely prefer to be in Verstappen’s shoes.”
What happened to Merc?
With Sainz set to start 19th, it looks likely to be a three-driver battle for the win on Sunday, with Mercedes further off than expected in qualifying.
The sport’s reigning-eight-time champion came into the weekend full of hope with upgrades and a Paul Ricard track that was expected to suit them, but they have been battling in the midfield so far and only scraped through to Q3.
Hamilton’s fourth place was the best they could manage.
“It’s just not good enough,” Wolff told Sky Sports F1.
“You can see that when you’re a little bit on the back foot and you’re expectations are on a certain level for the race weekend, and it doesn’t come together, a kind of freestyling starts.
“With us it was mainly experimenting with rear wing levels and also tyre temperatures, but at the end, the overall package is just not quick enough and we can see that.”
More to follow.
French GP: Sky Sports F1’s live Sunday schedule
8.30am: F2 Feature Race
12.30pm: Grand Prix Sunday: French GP Build-up
2pm: The French Grand Prix
4pm: Chequered Flag: French GP Reaction
5pm: Ted’s Notebook
5.30pm: French GP Highlights