Lewis Hamilton won a battle with Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas for pole position at the first French Grand Prix for 10 years.
Hamilton beat Bottas by 0.118 seconds in a top 10 shoot-out interrupted by a red flag following a crash by Haas driver Romain Grosjean.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was third, ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
And there was a starring performance from rookie Charles Leclerc, who put the Sauber in eighth place on the grid.
Mercedes back on top thanks to upgrade
Mercedes dominated the final session and Hamilton was ahead of Bottas by just 0.095secs after their first runs.
Grosjean then crashed at the fast-entry Beausset double right-hander, bringing the session to a halt while the Haas was removed.
On the final laps, Bottas beat Hamilton’s earlier time, but the world champion snuck back ahead shortly afterwards.
It gives Hamilton a good opportunity to reclaim the championship lead from title rival Vettel, who is one point ahead following his win in Canada last time out.
Hamilton was further ahead in the first two sessions but found his advantage cut on the final runs.
Mercedes’ first one-two on the grid since the Spanish Grand Prix came on a weekend when the team introduced an upgraded engine. It had been scheduled for the last race in Canada, where the other three manufacturers all had upgrades, but a reliability concern led to a delay.
Mercedes said the two-week delay had allowed them to introduce further reliability and performance.
It may not have made the difference between pole and not, but it was certainly a relief after a rare – if brief – moment of fallibility from the company that has dominated the turbo hybrid era of F1.
The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were fourth and fifth, ahead of the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.
Leclerc in a Ferrari next year?
Raikkonen’s qualifying was a story that has become all-too familiar. A mistake in qualifying when it mattered – for the fourth time in eight races this year – on a day when a man widely tipped to be replacing him next year excelled.
Leclerc, a 20-year-old from Monaco and the reigning Formula 2 champion, is a Ferrari young driver who is at Sauber this year so he can learn the ropes.
He has been increasingly impressive but never more so than at the Circuit Paul Ricard on Saturday. He beat team-mate Marcus Ericsson by 0.8secs in second qualifying and once into the top 10 also edged out the Haas of Kevin Magnussen to take eighth, the best starting position of his career.
Ferrari are already known to be considering promoting him to become Vettel’s team-mate as early as next year and this can only have made those chances greater.
Leclerc was just behind Carlos Sainz, impressive in the Renault in seventh place and five places ahead of team-mate Nico Hulkenberg.
McLaren in the mire
While a new face is beginning to establish himself as a potential new star, an old superstar is having a painful time.
Fernando Alonso qualified on 16th in the increasingly recalcitrant McLaren, with team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne 18th.
It was the beleaguered team’s worst qualifying performance of an increasingly disappointing year that started with pretensions of battling with Red Bull, who have the same Renault engine.
Instead, McLaren appear to be going backwards, despite their attempts to improve the car, and the performance will only increase the pressure on a management who are facing increasing criticism.
What they said
Hamilton: “Q3 has not been spectacular. Q1 and Q2 were good, but Q3 was so-so.”
Vettel: “It’s a difficult one to get the right balance, I tried to push everything in the last attempt, but looking back. I pushed too hard. You try and get a little bit here and there out the car and then it slides, you lose the line, and you end up losing time rather than gaining.”
Alonso: “Happy with the lap. This is the way it is. Already in Canada we were P15, so we were one position on the borderline, so it is not a surprise but it is very disappointing.”