Le Castellet, France (AP) — Lewis Hamilton finally got his improved engine and put it to good use on Saturday, streaking away to a record-extending 75th career pole position at Formula One’s French Grand Prix.
Hamilton’s main challenger for the fastest time at the Paul Ricard Circuit was teammate Valtteri Bottas, who was the second quickest ahead of points leader Sebastian Vettel in his Ferrari.
The Mercedes pair is poised for another one-two victory it achieved after starting from the front row in Barcelona last month.
Hamilton called his run “impeccable.”
“We have all pulled together and done a great job in putting the car where we need it, for both Valtteri and I,” Hamilton said. “You can see how close it is between us all. It’s really, really great to have this result, and a one-two.”
Hamilton lost his lead in the standings to Vettel two weeks ago when Mercedes couldn’t deliver a planned engine upgrade on time. He finished the race in Canada fifth, and saw Vettel turn a 14-point deficit into a one-point lead with a victory.
The British driver has put himself into position to boost his title defense if he can continue the dominant driving he has shown in the past two days at the track just inland from the Cote d’Azur.
Bottas credited the upgrade with the gains on the track.
“We definitely needed it,” Bottas said. “It is going to be close all season. It would have definitely helped us in Montreal.”
The final moments of qualifying became a duel between the Mercedes drivers, with Bottas going top just before Hamilton crossed the line with the leading time for his third pole of the season.
“I was confident I could improve for the final attempt,” Vettel said about his last flying lap that came up short. “I pushed hard and probably pushed too much and was playing catch up. We can be happy with third for tomorrow (though). We have a good car.”
In F1’s first race in France in a decade, Hamilton quickly adapted to the unfamiliar track by posting the top times in both of Friday’s qualifying sessions, while Vettel struggled to find the right driving lines.
Red Bull pair Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo posted the fourth- and fifth-fastest times in qualifying. They were followed by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. and Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc, who impressed with his first top-10 time.
Heavy rain kept cars mostly in their garages during Saturday’s final practice, when Bottas topped the timesheet. The track mostly dried out in time for qualifying, but a light drizzle returned midway through the hour-long session.
The biggest loser from qualifying was Romain Grosjean, who lost control and put the nose of his Haas into the barrier after having made the cut for the 10 fastest drivers. He told his team over the radio he was unharmed.
Fernando Alonso, winner of the 24 Hour Le Mans last week, failed to get out of the first qualifying section, which culls the slowest five drivers, along with McLaren partner Stoffel Vandoorne and both Williams cars.
Brendon Hartley will start the race from last place after Toro Rosso had to change his Honda engine on Friday. That earned him a grid penalty because the team already used its allowance of engine parts.
The return of the French GP after a decade-long absence is the first part of an unprecedented tripleheader of three races on consecutive weekends with the Austria and British events coming in quick succession.
The last time Le Castellet held an F1 race was in 1990 when French great Alain Prost won for Ferrari.