Verstappen impressed by Red Bull strides after beating Hamilton to pole in France

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Mercedes are hoping to bounce back at Circuit Paul Ricard after chastening outings at the street circuits of Monaco and Baku.

But while they are close to Red Bull at the more traditional track in Le Castellet, they could not prevent Verstappen from claiming pole on Saturday with an advantage of 0.258 seconds to Hamilton.

Valtteri Bottas can also apply some pressure to Verstappen after the Finn came third, just ahead of the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez, who won a thriller in Baku last time out.

Mercedes were dominant in the two French Grand Prix editions held since the race returned to the F1 calendar as Hamilton won from pole in 2018 and 2019.

But they will have to triumph from behind this time if they are to make it a hat-trick.

“So far it has been a really positive weekend on a track where it has been normally a bit difficult for us,” Verstappen said after claiming his first pole since the opening race in Bahrain.

“FP2 was a bit of a turnaround for us – of course to get pole position was even better and really nice. There is some great promise from our side and I hope we can keep it up.

“No points were scored but for us it is a great day and we have to finish it off on Sunday and try to get the 25 points that we lost in Baku.

“I am confident [with our race car] actually, the car felt good in FP2 so I am looking forward to it.”

The lost points in Baku referred to Verstappen suffering a heartbreaking tyre failure as he closed in on victory, though his pain would be eased slightly as Perez ensured a Red Bull triumph while Hamilton did not pick up any points.

It has been another difficult few days for Hamilton, who was pleased to end up on the front row for a race where weather could be a factor.

“A really, really hard weekend – mentally and just trying to get the car into a happy place,” said the seven-time world champion, who trails Verstappen by four points.

“You wouldn’t believe how many changes I have made over the time since FP1, going round and round kind of chasing the tail and then ending up coming back to something similar to where we started.

“Congratulations to Max, they are incredibly quick, they’ve got a new engine this week and they are quick in the straights – a lot of time for them there.

“We have a race on our hands and we are loving the battle – we are going to keep pushing, fighting and giving it everything.

“Obviously in second you have at least a fighting chance down to turn one, plus there will be some interesting strategy and maybe some rain so a chance to see who is the rain master!”

Bottas is under pressure at Mercedes after a miserable start to the season but was satisfied with a solid weekend so far, having been competitive throughout practice.

“It has been a strong weekend, for sure a lot better than a couple of weeks ago, so at least we have seen the pace has been there,” he said. “The last run in Q3 felt good for me.

“We have seen it is going to be close with Red Bull as it was in qualifying. Can’t be too happy being third because it has been a strong weekend otherwise, but I think Red Bull were faster.”

Yuki Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher crashed as two red flags in Q1 led to Lance Stroll being eliminated without setting a time.

Esteban Ocon, at his home race after signing a new deal with Alpine, was among the eliminated drivers in Q2, as was Sebastian Vettel, who took an impressive second place in Azerbaijan.

There was a big gap between the two leading teams and the rest in Q3, with Carlos Sainz ultimately taking fifth ahead of home favourite Pierre Gasly and the pole-sitter from the last two races, Charles Leclerc.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:29.990 2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.258s 3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.386s 4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.455s 5. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.850s 6. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.878s 7. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.997s 8. Lando Norris (McLaren) +1.262s 9. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.350s 10. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +1.392s

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