With track temperatures at Circuit Paul Ricard exceeding 50 degrees Celcius, qualifying matched the heat with brilliant runs from Mercedes, McLaren pressuring Red Bull, while the red team’s fire went to a flicker.

Lewis Hamilton found the pace in Q3 to take pole position for the second time in a row, and was lucky to do so. Valterri Bottas had outpaced Hamilton in the first two sessions and was looking to do so in Q3. The pair had pushed each other hard, culminating in Hamilton making an error late in the final session, yet somehow his pace was such that this glitch still wasn’t enough to hand pole to the Finn. It would be tight, with just 0.286 seconds being the ultimate gap. Hamilton said afterwards: “…it gets harder and harder to get these poles, Valtteri’s been doing some epic laps through practice and qualifying in these first races.”

Charles Leclerc would claim P3 and is a further near half second behind Bottas. Sebastian Vettel had a horror session; not only was he and Ferrari’s appeal from Canada denied, Vettel’s fire went out and he would slide down to P7. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen impressed to take P4 however his final qualifying time of 1:29.409 is a full 1.1 seconds shy of Hamilton’s new track record of 1:28.319.

What promises to add even more spice to the mix is the pace of McLaren. Lando Norris dug deep during Free Practice 2 to see his times 5th quickest, and the pace of both he and Carlos Sainz in qualifying has the young Brit just 0.009 behind Verstappen, with Sainz lining up next to hi and just a bare tenth off the pace of Norris. “It’s a good achievement for myself, just in Formula 1, to get fifth, but I think there’s a few other things which I’ve done, winning championships let’s say, which have been better.” said Norris of his achievement. Sainz had been trialing various parts and found the process rewarding for a team needing more. “I’m just very happy to know that the team is bringing new things for me to try on Friday or to give them a go knowing that there’s always things coming to try and develop the car, try to find another tenth.” said Sainz.

Sebastian Vettel was left scratching his head after Q3. Practice times looked promising and Q2 had the German within sight of Bottas and his scintillating pace. But Q3 saw the wheels “fall off”, with Vettel saying he’d missed a gear change very early in the session which resulted in him backing out of the hot lap, whilst later either his mindset or the car wasn’t right, resulting in P7 and  around 1.7 seconds from Hamilton. “But as I say it was difficult for me because some laps it was really good and was just coming, and other laps I don’t know why but I didn’t have the grip that I seemed to have the runs before. Shame that it happened in Q3 – it would have been better to be slower in the other segments, but that’s what it is today.

Renault appear to have continued to improve and Daniel Ricciardo will start next to his former team mate, Vettel. Again the Australian outshone Nico Hulkenberg, who failed to make it past Q1. Hulkenberg was on an older engine, otherwise a grid penalty would have applied, whilst Ricciardo had leeway to use a new Spec B powerplant, plus he’d qualified on medium compound rubber. “In Q2 I made a mistake on the first run,” said Ricciardo. “I had a few moments, had to abort my first run in Q2 and then [my engineers] were like ‘we’re putting the medium on’.“I hadn’t used that tyre at all this weekend, but obviously they knew something I didn’t, so I just had to put that in there, and that was a good lap, that got me in Q3, and I think eighth was where we were at.”

Although Hulkenberg was hobbled by a lower spec engine, he admitted he also hadn’t the best drive: “Unfortunately I lost the second lap of the second Q2 run on the medium tyre going into Turn 8 – I just locked up the rear quite aggressively instantly and couldn’t make the corner. That wasn’t going to plan, and then it was just not enough.”

Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi round out the top ten. Alexander Albon heads the rest of the field, with Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo locking him out of a top ten place by 3/10ths in Q1, and 6/100ths in Q2. Kimi Raikonnen’s very average season continued to be average, with P12 against his name, Hulkenberg is P13 and Sergio Perez, who was fractionally faster than Raikkonen in Q1 being slow enough in Q2 to drop to P14.

Kevin Magnussen did make in through Q1 but his 1:31 in Q2 simply wasn’t enough to move past P15. Daniil Kvyat, Romain Grosjean, Lance Stroll, George Russell, and Robert Kubica complete the field, with both Kvyat and Russell copping grid place penalties for engine component swaps. Stroll put on a brave face after his 12th straight failure to move into Q2. “It’s definitely something to do with tyre warm-up in the car because I feel like I strung it together pretty well today, with everything that I had under me, so it’s quite surprising to see the outcome, being as bad as it was. Unfortunately we didn’t get everything out of it. In terms of performance, my team mate seemed to find a lot more performance so we’ll have to look into it. Sights are set on tomorrow, we’ll try and do what we can do from there.”

The French F1 Grand Prix for 2019 gets underway at 15:10 local time on Sunday June 23.