Charles Leclerc drew level with Max Verstappen on 16 F1 pole positions by outpacing the World Champion in qualifying for the French Grand Prix.
Although Ferrari had been fastest in Friday practice, Verstappen had flexed his muscles with his Red Bull the class of the field in FP3.
But the Dutchman will have to settle for starting the race in second, just behind his main 2022 championship rival who cut Verstappen’s lead in the title race to 38 points when beating him to victory in Austria last time out.
Qualifying began with the back row of the grid already formed, Carlos Sainz and Kevin Magnussen certain to be there barring any further unforeseen engine penalties. The complete list of extra power-unit components fitted to their cars had filtered through during FP3.
They were the last two drivers still in the pits as Leclerc set the initial fastest time ahead of Verstappen and Sergio Perez, with one school of thought suggesting Ferrari could try to get Sainz through to Q3 to give his team-mate an important tow along the straight.
Magnussen did a solitary run at the end but his time was still good enough for sixth and both he and Sainz advanced, which meant five other drivers would still be eliminated from Q1.
Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were unhappy about rivals getting in their way – in the Dutchman’s case finding his own team-mate on his line – as attention turned to who would exit. There were mistakes on their final attempts from Zhou Guanyu and Alex Albon, the latter spinning and bringing out yellow flags, but while the Alfa Romeo man’s error proved costly, the Williams driver got away with it.
Only just in Albon’s case though – he survived by the skin of his teeth as Mick Schumacher had a lap time deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 3. Schumacher joined Albon’s team-mate Nicholas Latifi, Zhou, Lance Stroll and, surprisingly at his home race, Pierre Gasly in the bottom five. Haas argued Schumacher’s case but were unsuccessful.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) July 23, 2022
In Q2 it was Verstappen and Perez that set the early benchmark ahead of Leclerc and Lando Norris, who was enjoying a productive time in a McLaren that had more upgrades at Paul Ricard than any other car.
As in Q1, Sainz was doing his own thing on a different run sequence to everyone else and with the track largely to himself, set a stunning 1:31.081 – a remarkable nine tenths of a second faster than Verstappen in P2.
In contrast, the closing stages arrived with Mercedes in trouble, Hamilton and George Russell ninth and 12th respectively on a circuit expected to play to their strengths. But they both ended up in the top seven as Albon had no second reprieve and was knocked out along with Sebastian Vettel, Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo.
Magnussen, in P8, was showing what he could be capable of in the race when he will be trying to fight his way through from the back along with Sainz.
🚨 OUT IN Q2 🚨
11. Daniel Ricciardo
12. Esteban Ocon
13. Valtteri Bottas
14. Sebastian Vettel
15. Alex Albon
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) July 23, 2022
Ferrari and Red Bull wasted no time in the 12 minutes of Q3, their four cars the first out on track, with Sainz clearly being utilised to give Leclerc a slipstream. It worked immediately as Leclerc took provisional pole, eight thousandths ahead of Verstappen, with Perez the only other driver within a second.
Leclerc went even quicker on his last run, improving his previous time by 0.337sec – and that was too much for Verstappen who had no answer.
Perez will start third ahead of Hamilton, with two more Britons, Norris and Russell, occupying the third row.
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1:30.872
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull 0.304s
3 Sergio Perez Red Bull 0.463s
4 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 0.893s
5 Lando Norris McLaren 1.160s
6 George Russell Mercedes 1.259s
7 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1.680s
8 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1.908s
9 Carlos Sainz Ferrari NO TIME
10 Kevin Magnussen Haas NO TIME
11 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1.841s (Q2)
12 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1.967s
13 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo Racing 1.971s
14 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 2.195s
15 Alex Albon Williams 2.226s
16 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1.712s (Q1)
17 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1.712s
18 Guanyu Zhou Alfa Romeo Racing 1.947s
19 Mick Schumacher Haas 1.974s
20 Nicholas Latifi Williams 2.067s