Lewis Hamilton timed his best lap to perfection on Saturday when he took pole position ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas with a blistering late effort at the French Grand Prix.
The five-time world champion, who had struggled to match the Finn’s pace in the previous two practice sessions, reeled off a fastest lap in one minute and 28.319 seconds to beat him by 0.286 seconds.
It was the 86th pole of his career for Hamilton, who won last year’s race from pole, and a record-increasing 63rd front-row lock-out for Mercedes. Hamilton has taken 60 of his poles with Mercedes.
It was a master-class from the dominant Silver Arrows team while their rivals laboured in pursuit, with Monegasque Charles Leclerc taking third for Ferrari ahead of Max Verstappen, fourth for Red Bull.
British rookie Lando Norris impressed with a fine effort to take fifth ahead of his resurgent McLaren team-mate Carlos Sainz and, surprisingly, a despondent Sebastian Vettel finished down in seventh in the second Ferrari after a gearbox issue during Q3.
Daniel Ricciardo was eighth for Renault ahead of Frenchman Pierre Gasly in the second Red Bull and Antonio Giovinazzi of Alfa Romeo.
“It’s not an easy track,” said Hamilton. “It’s very technical and Valtteri has been very quick all weekend. I’ve been chipping away and the last two laps were the ones.”
Bottas said: “I think Lewis had a really good lap. It’s between super close between us all weekend and it’s about fine details.”
A happy Leclerc said: “At the end, I am pretty happy with my lap and unfortunately it wasn’t enough! A good start will be very important tomorrow.”
Searing heat and gusty winds
On an afternoon of searing heat and a gusty wind at the remote Le Castellet circuit, the track temperature was 55 degrees as the session began and the air was 30, conditions that ensured plenty of complaints about the smooth, if slippery, asphalt surface.
As he had on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, Bottas was quick to set the pace and topped Q1 ahead of Hamilton with Leclerc a close third.
Out went Daniil Kvyat, of Toro Rosso, who will start at the back of the grid after taking a new engine, Romain Grosjean in his Haas, Lance Stroll of Force India and the two Williams of George Russell and Robert Kubica.
Both Mercedes and Ferrari started Q2 on mediums and Hamilton responded with a lap in 1:29.520, only for Bottas to reply with 1:29.437, taking an extra lap to do so.
As these are intended to be their race-starting tyres, Hamilton’s more cautious approach may have preserved some life he can make use of on Sunday.
Alexander Albon, 11th for Toro Rosso, also impressed but missed out on the top-ten shootout along with Kimi Raikkonen in the second Alfa, Nico Hulkenberg of Renault, Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen.
On their first Q3 runs, it was Hamilton on top by two-tenths with Leclerc third and Vettel forced to pit after missing an upshift –- his gearbox not responding as required.
That left the four-time world champion, already in a solemn mood after the rejection of Ferrari’s appeal against the Montreal penalty which cost him victory in Canada, sounding ironically grim ahead of the final showdown.