Charles Leclerc takes French F1 GP pole for Ferrari with help from Sainz

Against the painted symmetry of Circuit Paul Ricard, Ferrari excelled in qualifying for the French Grand Prix with an artistically appropriate display of synchronized scarlet teamwork. So often the target of criticism for poor strategy, the Scuderia did an Italian job to perfection, securing Charles Leclerc pole position for Sunday’s race.

He had a good lap for Ferrari but was helped by a tow from team-mate, Carlos Sainz, which helped him to pole, beating the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez to second and third. Lewis Hamilton and George Russell finished fourth and sixth – fairly decent considering their season but nowhere near the improvement Mercedes had hoped for. The end of their winless run seems further away than ever.

Sainz finished ninth but, with the team knowing he would start from the back row of the grid after taking new power unit components, they opted to use him tactically to Leclerc’s advantage.

Leclerc had set the tone on his hot first lap in Q3 after taking advantage of a slipstream from Sainz on the Mistral straight. It was a vital advantage as Verstappen breathed down his neck and crossed the line eight thousandths of a second, setting up a powerful one-on-one for the final races.

Ferrari repeated their tactic on the hot second laps with Sainz leading Leclerc, but Red Bull did not use Pérez in the same way for Verstappen, instead opting to ensure they had two drivers in the mix. leading the race. Once again Leclerc, in the slipstream of Sainz with the two a glistening red blur, back line in the Provençal sunshine, took an elegant advantage before the Spaniard came out of his way. Leclerc went ahead and smashed his previous lap with a 1min 30.872sec. Verstappen couldn’t match it and was three tenths down.

“I have to say thank you to Carlos for his help,” said Leclerc. “Carlos judged him perfectly and stepped aside at the right time. I think [the time gained] is about two tenths, so that’s important. It would have been much tighter with Max without the tow.

Charles Leclerc on his way to pole
Charles Leclerc was three tenths faster than Max Verstappen. Photography: Eric Gaillard/AP

Hamilton will reach his 300th race on Sunday, but it is highly unlikely to be the celebratory event he might have been hoping for. Despite Mercedes’ optimism of heading for the favourites, their pace seems to suggest they are not closer. Hamilton was nine tenths behind Leclerc while Russell was more than a second behind. Hamilton was confused, especially after their significant improvements at Silverstone.

“I finished it and thought it was a great lap, but I was still nine tenths down,” he said. “I don’t know why that gap has grown in those two races. They are in their own league in terms of performance. I came here thinking that in the last race we were three or four tenths behind. and I thought this weekend we’d be two or three tenths down and we’ve been down a second.

The 37-year-old, who is in his 16th season in the sport, said he is confident Mercedes can still compete for wins but they are clearly not there yet. His outstanding record of having won at least once per season in F1 since 2007 appears to be in real jeopardy.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff praised his driver but admitted the W13 car was still far from where it should be. “Lewis has probably extracted more than the car has at the moment,” he said. “We knew that once we got the new tires and drove the car angrily we would be there third and fourth, like we have been all season. But that’s just not good enough. .

Mercedes setup a new nose in France and at high temperatures it was hoped that the circuit, with its smooth, flat surface and high speed, would be suitable for their revised car. However, the gap with Leclerc remains a chasm. They will expect a better race pace, as will Red Bull, but Leclerc is on a roll.

He has to make space count. With six wins, Verstappen has established a commanding position in the title chase and enjoys a 38-point advantage over the second-placed Monegasque driver and 57 points over Pérez.

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    Lando Norris was fifth for McLaren, Fernando Alonso seventh for Alpine and Yuki Tsunoda eighth for AlphaTauri. Kevin Magnussen was in 10th place but will start from the back of the grid after taking on new power unit components.

    Daniel Ricciardo was 11th for McLaren and Esteban Ocon 12th for Alpine. Valtteri Bottas finished 13th for Alfa Romeo, Sebastian Vettel 14th for Aston Martin and Alexander Albon 15th for Williams.

    Pierre Gasly was 16th for AlphaTauri, Lance Stroll 17th for Aston Martin with Guanyu Zhou 18th for Alfa Romeo. Mick Schumacher finished 19th for Haas and Nicholas Latifi 20th for Williams.

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