F1 Raceweek: Hamilton & Bottas in a league of their own
Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas look set to be in a battle of their own at the French Grand Prix, unless Charles Leclerc can spring a surprise on Sunday.
Mercedes were expected to have the fastest cars this weekend, and they have proven that by topping the time-sheets at every practice and qualifying session.
Rival teams will have been even more downbeat when they heard the post-qualifying remarks of pole-sitter Hamilton, who was 0.646seconds faster than Leclerc in third, with fourth-placed Max Verstappen and the remainder of the grid not even getting within a second.
The Briton, who leads the drivers' championship by 29 points over Bottas, revealed his record lap of 1:28.319 could have been significantly quicker.
Hamilton won from pole last year at Circuit Paul Ricard, as the race made its first appearance on the Formula One calendar since 2008, and a repeat would see him make it six wins from eight in a dominant 2019.
"I was on for one of the best laps I'd done," Hamilton said of his second flying lap in Q3. "I was up four-and-a-half tenths coming into the second-to-last corner and I just lost the back end partly through [the wind], or maybe going too quick.
"I was onto something really special and it would have been nice to have had that one. But it was still quicker and I'm really, really happy.
"Through Q1 and Q2, Valtteri just had the edge. I just couldn't outpace him. I knew I had work to do and it looked like it was going to be his day but I managed to put some really good sectors together - it is always great to be able to pull everything and more out of a car."
I dream of days like this when all the elements align with the team & then within myself. And we deliver on every level. So appreciative of the way in which my team work together and constantly strive for greatness. Thank you. Pole done. Now let’s race #FrenchGP@MSI_Imagespic.twitter.com/s9zdRwEgrb— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) June 22, 2019
Bottas was quickest in Q1 and Q2, as well as in two of the three practice sessions. The Finn had a difficult race in Canada after a poor qualifying, but he is more optimistic from a better starting position in Le Castellet.
"Lewis just got it better but as a team, it is good – we have a really strong package and hopefully it will be the same [on Sunday]," said Bottas.
"It is a nice long straight run down to turn one so hopefully I can get something done. The start is going to be one of the key things for me, so I will focus on that."
If they avoid an incident with each other, it is hard to see Hamilton and Bottas being beaten. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said tyre management on a hot track would be a key focus, with a one-stop strategy optimal.
FERRARI HOPES REST WITH LECLERC
The start may also be Leclerc's best chance to make an impact, given Ferrari's straight-line speed advantage. They have fared better in the early section of the track, while the slower corners towards the end are Mercedes' forte.
"My lap was good and the car felt good for the right moment," said the 21-year-old. "So I'm very happy as Q3 was my weak point in the last few races.
"This is the best we could have done in qualifying but the gap is still quite big so we need to work and hopefully it will be an exciting race. A good start will be very important – but it's going to be difficult because their race pace on Friday was very, very, very strong."
Sebastian Vettel will have to come through the field after qualifying a disappointing seventh, as he looks to bounce back from the controversy in Canada.
Red Bull have Verstappen, who finished second in last season's race, starting fourth and in the podium hunt again, but Pierre Gasly struggled to qualify ninth for his home race and is likely to be under pressure from the cars behind due to starting on the less durable soft tyre.
IMPRESSIVE MCLAREN DENY 'SECRET UPGRADE'
McLaren's magnificent performance to qualify fifth and sixth on the grid – the first time they have had two cars in the top six since 2014 - came as a surprise to many, including engine supplier Renault, who were running a new power unit in Daniel Ricciardo's car.
Ricciardo, who qualified eighth, even suggested their midfield rivals had brought some unannounced changes to their car.
"We got beat by the two McLarens and they have a little update they told no one about, I think," said the Australian. "It's impressive their pace – they really had speed all weekend - and we couldn't match that."
But 19-year-old Lando Norris, who will start fifth for McLaren, seemed as surprised as anyone, saying: "I've heard rumours now that Renault say we have a secret upgrade. I wish we did - because we'd be even quicker!
"We have come into here thinking some of the corners are a bit like China, where we were pretty average. We thought this would be a very tough one and it's turned out to be better than we ever would have expected. To get fifth, it's probably my best achievement so far in F1."
Whether the McLarens can stay competitive under race conditions will be one of the intriguing things to watch.
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
3. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
4. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
5. Lando Norris (McLaren)
6. Carlos Sainz (McLaren)
7. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
8. Daniel Ricciardo (Renault)
9. Pierre Gasly (Red Bull)
10. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo)
2018: Lewis Hamilton
2009-2017: Race not held
2008: Felipe Massa (for Ferrari)
2007: Kimi Raikkonen (for Ferrari)
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 162
2. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 133 (-29)
3. Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) 100 (-62)
4. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 88 (-74)
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 72 (-90)
1. Mercedes 295
2. Ferrari 172 (-123)
3. Red Bull 124 (-171)
A dry, hot and mostly sunny day is expected in Le Castellet on Sunday, with winds the only complication drivers could be faced with.