Mercedes expected to return to form at Paul Ricard after two torrid weekends around the streets of Monte Carlo and Baku, but a sublime lap from Max Verstappen in qualifying earned Red Bull its first-ever pole in France. 

It marks the first time since the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix that Red Bull has topped a qualifying session, and its strong performance was a significant one that suggests it could boast the best all-round package in 2021. 

Mercedes has dominated at the French GP venue since it returned to the calendar three years ago, with Paul Ricard’s mix of medium and high-speed corners traditionally a combination that suits the Mercedes car. 

But Red Bull has maintained its performance edge over Mercedes in France, a superiority that was underlined by Verstappen’s comfortable 0.258s buffer to main title rival Lewis Hamilton in qualifying. 

“It certainly gives us more confidence,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports. 

“I mean let’s see how tomorrow goes but this circuit has been such a stronghold for Mercedes over recent years. If we can beat them here, then we can beat them anywhere.”

Red Bull has arguably had the quickest car over one lap this season but, for one reason or another, it has not always come out on top. 

A mistake in Q3 cost Verstappen pole in Imola, while the Dutchman had his fastest lap deleted for track limits in Portugal. In Spain, it took a special lap from Hamilton to pip Verstappen to his 100th career pole by just 0.036s. 

Verstappen could have been on pole in Monaco and Baku as well, had it not been for a pair of unfortunately-timed red flags that forced him to abort his lap - which on both occasions were up on Charles Leclerc’s benchmark. 

The general consensus arriving in France was that Mercedes would hit back to regain supremacy in the 2021 title fight, but Verstappen produced a surprisingly dominant performance to deny the Black Arrows a third consecutive pole at Paul Ricard. 

“This has traditionally not been an amazing track for us, but to be able to put it on pole here of course we're super happy about that,” Verstappen said. 

"I knew it was going to be better than the last time we were here, but this good? I didn't expect [that].

"So, that's of course very promising for us and we just have to keep on going, keep on pushing to try and make it better."

After qualifying, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff conceded his side is simply not fast enough when it matters over one lap. 

“[It’s been] a difficult weekend because we are just lacking pace, that’s the truth,” he told Sky Sports F1. 

“We just need to gain everywhere. There’s not one part we are not looking at in order to improve our game.”

After falling comfortably short of pole despite an impressive recovery effort in Q3, there was a sense of resignation about Red Bull’s advantage in Hamilton’s voice as he came over team radio to say: “That was a good lap. Still over two tenths off?”

Ultimately, the seven-time world champion was happy to be joining his title rival on the front row, feeling he had got the most out of his car. 

“It’s a lot bigger than we’d hoped,” said Hamilton of the gap to Verstappen. “They’ve been so fast these past races. 

“We are pushing and giving everything we can, but I think they’ve just got a strong package at the moment. But we’re close.”

Mercedes is continuing to struggle to get its tyres into the optimum operating window, something that appears to come more naturally for Verstappen in his Red Bull. 

That has been highlighted all weekend so far by Verstappen’s ability to pump in competitive lap times straight out of the box, as he also did in Monaco and Baku. 

Other factors have also played a role in Red Bull’s pace advantage. Mercedes is losing significant time in the corners, while Verstappen was boosted on Paul Ricard’s straights by running a low downforce rear wing configuration. 

Additionally, Red Bull has taken on Honda’s new power unit for this weekend, with the Japanese manufacturer further closing the gap to Mercedes in the engine department over the winter. 

While Mercedes appears to be focusing its development onto the 2022 rules revolution, Red Bull is still bringing new updates to its 2021 car in its bid to win its first world title since 2013. 

“There’s a lot at stake obviously but the whole team is working incredibly well, working long hours,” Horner explained. 

“It’s difficult this year because you’ve got the current car, you’ve got next year’s car, you’ve got the cost cap and everything else going on but as a unit to see the whole team coming together as it is and putting this pressure on Mercedes, is phenomenal.”

Mercedes has tended to be stronger than Red Bull in race pace at conventional tracks this year and that sets up the prospect of a fascinating, epic duel on Sunday. 

Should Red Bull continue to translate this form into upcoming races at similar ‘normal’ circuits, it could be world championship defining.