Even amid all the post-race furore over the time penalty, Sebastian Vettel’s dominant display over the Canadian Grand Prix weekend stoked some hope that Ferrari could begin a fightback against Mercedes this year, stopping the silver streak of success to start the season in its tracks.

But in its ever-clinical nature, Mercedes dashed such thinking with aplomb in qualifying for the French Grand Prix on Saturday, sweeping to a one-two finish that appeared to understate what the true margin to Ferrari is around Paul Ricard.

Hot conditions at Paul Ricard made for a difficult qualifying session with wild swings in tyre performance, with the Medium appearing to be the better compound for Q2. Everyone who wanted Mediums for the start got them, advancing to Q3 in the top eight places, with those risking it on Softs languishing further down the order. With only a marginal gain to be found across the two compounds, having a tyre life advantage for the start was the right way to go.

Valtteri Bottas seemed to be the man to beat after leading both FP2 and FP3, with his form carrying through the first two stages of qualifying as he edged teammate Lewis Hamilton both times around.

But following a tricky few days, having missed most of Thursday at the track to attend a memorial for Karl Lagerfeld in Paris and then with the distraction of Ferrari’s hearing over Vettel’s Canada penalty, Hamilton once again proved why he is the greatest qualifier in F1 history by digging deep to grab his third pole of the season.

A first time of 1m28.448s was enough to put Hamilton on provisional pole by almost two-tenths of a second from Bottas, with the Briton calling the lap “fantastic”.

But another change in track conditions – this time with the wind direction taking a turn – again shifted things for the final runs in Q3. “I knew that it was still relatively close and I still needed to find more areas to push and improve so I went out for that second run,” Hamilton said.

“I was on for one of my best laps that I have done for a long time. It is crazy, as it never gets old and it never gets easier. It is always such a challenge regardless of what position you are battling for. “I was up four-and-a-half tenths coming into the second to last corner and it was really dusty out there, so I lost the back end.” He was able to improve on his best lap nevertheless to a 1m28.319s.

Adding Hamilton’s best sector times together through qualifying, you can shave another half a tenth off his fastest lap in Q3, taking him down to a 1m28.256s – or three-and-a-half tenths up on Bottas’ best, the Finn’s final run being compromised by the change in wind direction.

“Valtteri has been doing some epic laps throughout practice and qualifying through these first races, and the Ferraris have been there on our tail but obviously there is a bigger gap today,” Hamilton said, having gapped Charles Leclerc in third by six-tenths of a second. Sebastian Vettel’s disastrous qualifying had seen him slump to seventh, easing the pressure on the Mercedes at the front.

Off the back of its impressive showing in Canada and suggestions of a ‘magic bullet’ that would unlock some of the dormant performance in the SF90 car, Ferrari had once again slipped far behind, seemingly marooned as the second-fastest team at Paul Ricard, adrift from Mercedes and a step ahead of the Red Bulls ahead.

Over the long runs on Friday afternoon in FP2, Mercedes looked to be head and shoulders clear of the field, realistically boiling the battle for victory down to two drivers: Hamilton and Bottas. Asked if he expected to see Mercedes and Ferrari disappear up the road from Red Bull on Sunday, Max Verstappen said: “Mercedes, yes...” He then added that Red Bull realistically looked in the fight for the podium with Ferrari at Paul Ricard despite its own struggles.

The gulf between Mercedes and Ferrari may have stood at 0.6 seconds come the end of Q3, but it appears to only be growing bigger and bigger in so many areas. Hamilton is always quick to speak warmly of his Mercedes team off the back of a big result, but passed an interesting comment on Ferrari’s focus heading into the weekend.

“It was definitely odd coming here when I heard Ferrari were spending time focusing on something else,” Hamilton said.

“Naturally for my team, I would have them focus on trying to improve the car. But then we came here, when I arrived, I heard it was Karun Chandhok’s video that was the new evidence so I was pretty relaxed after that. So I put it behind me.

“In the last race it is not always easy, like when you hear boos for example, but that is part of the game, and if anything, it spurs me on.”

The slick Mercedes operation just keeps on chugging… 



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