French Grand Prix: Verstappen dominates qualifying to take pole position at Paul Ricard


June 19, 2021

By Will Knight

Formula 1 returned to the birthplace of Grand Prix racing for the 61st time; France. With Paul Ricard hosting the French Grand Prix for the first time since 2019 due to COVID-19 restrictions, drivers had struggled with track limits all weekend, but it was Max Verstappen who overcame these and took pole position. 

Hazy skies in the South of France hung over the Paul Ricard Circuit as drivers hit the track for the seventh qualifying session of 2021. The wind was not a major issue for the teams, but with a wide-open circuit, this could easily change throughout the three-part session. 

One of the biggest stories in the opening of the weekend was the track limits, with the curbs on the exit of turn 2 taking a large amount of criticism from teams such as Mercedes and Red Bull Racing. However, the FIA stood firm and the yellow bumps remained on the corner's exit. 

As well as this, the 'flexi-wing' saga had come to an end due to new wing test procedures. All of these factors combined pathed the way for the French Grand Prix to be a true sign of who is the fastest team in 2021, with qualifying being just as important. 

AlphaTauri, Haas and Alfa Romeo were the first to head out on track in qualifying followed by George Russell. Drivers tiptoed around the 5.842km circuit in order to save their tyres before pushing them to the limit on a qualifying lap. 

One driver who pushed over the limit was Yuki Tsunoda who hit the barrier for the third time in qualifying this season. The Japanese driver spun on the exit of turn one, bringing out another red flag and ending the session prematurely.

Tsunoda briefly struggled to get his car to restart before the AlphaTauri team instructed him to leave the car and allow the marshalls to collect the AT02. Soon after, the session was restarted with most drivers queuing up to leave the pitlane.

Red Bull soon topped the timesheets with Verstappen moving almost seven-tenths faster than the two Mercedes cars with Sergio Perez going second. Lewis Hamilton soon matched the Austrian team and split Verstappen and Perez. 

With just 23 seconds remaining, Mick Schumacher's Haas careered into the barrier between turn six and seven. For the first time, Schumacher made it into Q2, but would not be able to compete due to damage. 

This knocked Nicholas Latifi, Kimi Raikkonen and Schumacher's teammate, Nikita Mazepin, out of qualifying for the French Grand Prix. Lance Stroll was unable to complete a competitive lap and will join Tsunoda on the tenth row of the grid. 

As Q2 began, all drivers except Russell went out on track on the medium tyres as the two Alpine cars remained in the garage. On this occasion, Perez went fastest with Verstappen in second as the two Mercedes cars sat in fourth and sixth. 

Meanwhile, Lando Norris had his lap deleted as the McLaren driver placed all four wheels off of the track on the exit of turn six. Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, who recently signed a new contract with Alpine, joined the rest of the drivers on the medium tyres. Alonso moved into seventh whilst his French teammate went ninth fastest. 

With tyre temperature and wear differing from team to team, some drivers decided to go for a second lap on the medium tyres. Hamilton went fastest as Alonso asked to go for another lap before being called into the weighbridge by the FIA.

Russell was knocked out of qualifying in 14th with Antonio Giovinazzi ending the second qualifying session in 13th. Sadly for Sebastian Vettel, he was unable to build on the momentum from his Azerbaijan podium as the German finished 12th. 

Surprisingly, Ocon was unable to reach Q3 despite the Frenchman showing good pace throughout the weekend so far. However, despite any possible disappointment, he will start on fresh tyres and may be able to capitalise on a strong position in tomorrow's Grand Prix. 

With both Red Bull and Mercedes scoring a 1-2 in Q1 and Q2 respectively, tension rose in the paddock and it was almost impossible to predict who would take pole position for the French Grand Prix. 

Pierre Gasly had his first lap deleted as he went wide on the exit of turn six whilst Carlos Sainz set the initial pace for Ferrari. The midfield then followed with Norris beating Alonso, Leclerc and Ricciardo before the top two teams began their hot laps. 

As the four contenders for pole position came across the line, it was Verstappen who set the initial pace with Hamilton four tenths behind his Dutch rival. Perez was 0.153 behind the seven-time world champion whilst Bottas trailed the Mexican by almost three tenths.

Verstappen went even faster than his original lap and was the only driver to move into the one minute and 29-second region whilst Perez and Bottas also improved with both stepping briefly onto the front row. 

However, Hamilton's purple first sector and improved lap time allowed him to beat his teammate to second but was unable to move ahead of his championship rival at the end of Q3. Verstappen's performance means Red Bull takes their first pole position since the opening round of the season in Bahrain.

Verstappen spoke about taking pole position, but stressed that the real challenge is the Grand Prix on Sunday. 

"No points are scored today," he began, "but we have to finish it off tomorrow and try and get the 25 points we lost in Baku."

Verstappen's pole position at a track which is difficult to overtake on is a good sign for the race tomorrow. However, with Mercedes seemingly holding better race pace, the Grand Prix could be a good show tomorrow as the championship contenders go head-to-head in France.

Full qualifying results:

Max Verstappen
Lewis Hamilton
Valtteri Bottas
Sergio Perez
Carlos Sainz
Pierre Gasly
Charles Leclerc
Lando Norris
Fernando Alonso
Daniel Ricciardo
Esteban Ocon
Sebastian Vettel
Antonio Giovinazzi
George Russell
Mick Schumacher
Nicholas Latifi
Kimi Raikkonen
Nikita Mazepin
Lance Stroll
Yuki Tsunoda

Image credit: Formula 1

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