Image source: ph-stop
Wet weather had scuppered virtually all the running in Free Practice Three, but in the rich team/poor team era of Formula 1, rain is a welcome sight thanks to its ability to scatter the running order. Few drivers on the grid have run on the circuit Paul Ricard and its unfamiliarity was clear as several ran wide in the opening 18 minutes, venturing into the odd-looking runoff areas (or degradation zones) with their hypnotic paint scheme.
Q1 saw Lance Stroll have a spectacular off-track incident that nearly sent his Williams into liftoff - he would finish last. Max Verstappen also took far too much kerb a few times but the top six comprised the usual big three, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.
The fastest of the rest were the under-performing Haas team. All eight finished within a second of the quickest time while the bottom of the order found Force India and McLaren struggling to crawl out of the first session. In a surprising development, both McLaren drivers were relegated to the dropout zone as the clock died, with nothing impeding their laps. The car looks to be this weekend's lemon.
Rain struck early in Q2 but vanished after just a few minutes. For the first time in 2018, the second session featured both Sauber cars. Whether they are getting added input from Ferrari or more development money is a mystery, but the Swiss team - and their impressive young superstar Charles Leclerc - are exceeding expectations regularly.
In a much calmer session, both Force India cars dropped out along with Pierre Gasly while Leclerc's stunning lap also squeezed out Nico Hulkenberg.
A dry track brought Q3 alive. Every lap looked quicker and fewer drivers ran wide while adding more risk. A typical Romain Grosjean spin at Turn Three which left him wedged in the barriers drew a red flag midway through the session..
There will be little damage from the crash but a ton of pressure will be added to his shoulders after a woeful 2018. Worse still, the shunt cost his teammate, who was about to start a hot lap, Magnussen finishing in ninth place, over two seconds off the pace.
Charles Leclerc finished eight, the 20-year-old Sauber driver impressing again, while Carlos Sainz brought his Renault home in seventh.
Raikkonen had a miserable qualifying and finished an unremarkable sixth, one place down from the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo and two down from Verstappen. The Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel hasn’t looked a serious threat all weekend, but he kept it close, finishing almost four-tenths down in third.
This was the first true Mercedes-only shootout since Australia back in March. Valtteri Bottas looked to have pole under wraps with a blistering lap just after the red flag was lifted, before teammate, Lewis Hamilton, snatched his 75th pole position.
Both drivers enjoyed fast and trouble-free sessions they will hope to translate into race domination tomorrow. But with rain in the forecast for Sunday, and Ferrari being much stronger in race trim than qualifying, there is some definite room for disruption.
Leclerc shines again
What cannot be underrated in this qualifying session was the performance of Charles Leclerc. The Sauber team has drastically improved this season but the Monegasque driver demolishes his teammate every weekend while remaining humble.
If there is any truth to this week's rumour he will replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari next year, the grid had better watch out. Undoubtedly, he will need to find his footing, but his talent and ability to improve has been visible in 2018. It will be interesting to see what he can accomplish tomorrow.