Verstappen claims pole for French Grand Prix

19/06/2021
NEWS STORY

One can hardly begin to imagine the conversations that have been taking place at Mercedes since this morning's session, Toto Wolff's face like thunder as he carefully avoided the various microphones stuck in his face.

The 0.747s gap between Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas was bad enough, but with Lewis Hamilton 0.966s down on the Dutchman the German team is clearly on the back foot.

To add to the German team's woes, though Ferrari wasn't expecting to be on the pace this weekend, both drivers, particularly Carlos Sainz are looking strong.

Having missed the open goal that followed Verstappen's demise in Baku, Mercedes, and in particular Hamilton, is seeking to make amends this weekend, but despite the numerous technical directives that have been sent their way, Red Bull appears to be as strong as ever.

Once again, this morning saw drivers struggle to remain on track, a number taking a trip over the circuit's highly abrasive kerbs, while track limits were also an issue, with numerous drivers having their times deleted.

Assuming that Mercedes hasn't been sandbagging, this afternoon Hamilton and Bottas will be keen to remain as close to the opposition as possible, for an anticipated one-stopper tomorrow will leave them with few strategic options.

Understandably, there has been a lot of work on Hamilton's car over the break.

Air temperature is 28.4 degrees C, while the track temperature is 44.2 degrees. It remains somewhat muggy.

The lights go green and Giovinazzi leads teammate Raikkonen out, followed by Gasly and Tsunoda.

More and more drivers head out as Gasly is told to "focus on yourself", all sporting the red-banded softs.

The session is red-flagged just three minutes into the session, after Tsunoda spins at Turn 1 and clouts the barrier. The AlphaTauri leaves angry track marks on the run-off.

"No gear, no gear," he complains. As the team tries to guide him through the process, he climbs from the car.

The relay reveals some curious oscillations at the rear of the car as it travelled backwards over the run-off.

Ahead of the green light, Leclerc heads the queue at the end of the pitlane, with his teammate tucked in behind.

The session resumes with 14:00 remaining.

Hamilton questions the wisdom in sending him out with so many others cars, but he is told that there is a limit on time. Soon all 19 drivers are on track.

Leclerc posts 33.187 but teammate Sainz is quicker (32.289).

Gasly posts a 31.898 but this is soon beaten by Bottas (31.669).

Gasly goes second, ahead of Norris, Stroll, Vettel and Ricciardo.

As Verstappen goes quickest, ahead of teammate Perez by 0.559s, Stroll has his time deleted.

Hamilton goes fourth with a 31.692, 691s off Verstappen's pace.

"Lap 2 is going to be far off," says Bottas, "so I don't recommend." "Box, box," he is told.

Leclerc, on his second flying lap, improves from 16th to 11th with a 32.209.

Hamilton goes quickest in S1, as Schumacher goes 14th overall.

Norris improves to fifth (31.733), as Hamilton goes second, 0.236s off Verstappen's best.

Ahead of the final run, Stroll has yet to post a time. The Canadian, along with Tsunoda, currently comprises the drop zone, along with Mazepin, Raikkonen and Latifi, with Russell, Schumacher and Giovinazzi hovering.

Hampered by traffic, Stroll aborts his lap.

PBs in the first two sectors are about to be followed by a third when the session is red-flagged again, this time after Schumacher goes off and hits the barriers at Turn 7.

On the pit-wall Otmar Szafnauer has his head in his hands as Stroll has missed the cut, unlike Schumacher who qualifies 14th but will play no further part in the session.

Quickest is Verstappen, ahead of Hamilton, Perez, Bottas, Norris, Gasly, Sainz, Vettel, Ocon and Alonso.

We lose Latifi, Raikkonen, Mazepin, Stroll and Tsunoda.

Raikkonen and Stroll will understandably feel particularly aggrieved by that red-flag stoppage.

As Q2 gets underway, a number of drivers are sporting mediums, the yellow-banded rubber last seen yesterday.

Of the bulk of drivers that initially head out, only Russell opts for softs.

Gasly goes quickest, ahead of Gasly and Leclerc, but a 31.306 sees Bottas go second.

No sooner has Sainz gone top (31.146) than Verstappen responds with a 31.080 and Perez a 30.971.

Norris has his 31.520 deleted as Hamilton can only mange sixth (31.500).

Alonso goes seventh with a 31.566 as teammate Ocon posts 31.762 to go ninth.

Norris goes seventh with a 31.542 as Hamilton claims the top spot with a 30.959.

With 5:00 remaining, Ocon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Russell and Schumacher comprise the drop zone.

They head out for the final assault, Verstappen among the last to leave his garage. Though they look set to stay put, Perez and Hamilton subsequently head out.

"We'll box this lap," Norris is told, "we'll explain later." The Briton, currently seventh, will be hoping that he's safe.

Perez and Ricciardo have switched to softs, as has Giovinazzi.

Russell improves but only to 13th (32.065).

Leclerc also improves, but only to 9th.

Verstappen and Gasly trade fastest sectors.

Ocon misses the cut while Alonso goes eighth.

Bottas goes quickest with a 30.735, while Ricciardo makes it by the skin of his teeth.

"Sorry," says Vettel, "just didn't have th same grip as before."

Quickest is Bottas, ahead of Hamilton, Perez, Verstappen, Sainz, Gasly, Norris, Alonso, Leclerc and Ricciardo.

We lose Ocon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Russell and Schumacher.

Check out our Saturday gallery from Paul Ricard, here.

Gasly is warned of a headwind in Turn 11 which means a tailwind in 12.

The Frenchman leads the field as Q3 gets underway.

Gasly posts a 31.410 but his time is instantly deleted.

Sainz therefore takes the top spot with a 31.142, ahead of Norris and Alonso, but Verstappen responds with a 30.325 and Perez a 30.864.

Hamilton splits the Red Bulls with a 30.711, but remains 0.386s off Verstappen's best.

Bottas goes fourth with a 31.126, 0.801s off the pace.

"I'm struggling so much with the fronts, so much" warns Leclerc as he goes eighth (31.577).

With 3:00 remaining they head out for the final assault, Hamilton among the last to show.

Yet to post a time, Gasly is first out.

As ever, in an attempt to find a space the field is backed right up.

Sainz goes quickest in S1, but Verstappen goes quicker and Hamilton quicker still.

Verstappen maintains his strong pace in S2 while Hamilton loses ground.

At the line Sainz posts 30.840, Verstappen 29.990 and Perez 30.445.

However, Bottas goes second with a 30.376 only to be demoted when his teammate bangs in a 30.248 to go second by 0.258s.

"Ha, ha, ha, yes, amazing job guys," declares the Dutchman.

"That was a good lap," echoes Hamilton.

So, Verstappen claims pole, ahead of Hamilton, Bottas, Perez, Sainz, Gasly, Leclerc, Norris, Alonso and Ricciardo.

Ocon is eleventh, ahead of Vettel, Giovinazzi, Russell, Schumacher, Latifi, Raikkonen, Mazepin, Stroll and Tsunoda.

All of which is looking a lot better for Hamilton than it did earlier, once again the Briton and his team digging deep.

"Really positive weekend," beams pole-man Verstappen in the post-session interview. "FP2 was a turnaround and just made it even better today.

"Of course we have to finish it off tomorrow, the car felt good yesterday in the race simulation so I'm looking forward to it."

"Really, really hard weekend," adds Hamilton. "Mentally, not physically... trying to get this car into a happy place, the changes I made to the car were satisfying.

"Max did a great job today, he's been incredibly quick, he's got a fresh engine this weekend so I've just got to give it everything."

"It's been a strong weekend, much better than a couple of weeks ago," says Bottas, taking a leaf out of countryman Kimi Raikkonen's book of brevity.

Check out our Saturday gallery from Paul Ricard, here.

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Published: 19/06/2021
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