LE CASTELLET, France (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton seized pole position for the French Grand Prix in track record time on Saturday as Mercedes, chasing their 10th successive win, swept the front row of the grid in dominant fashion.
The Formula One world championship leader and last year’s race winner was 0.286 seconds quicker than team mate Valtteri Bottas on another searingly hot afternoon at Le Castellet in the south of France.
The front row lockout was the 63rd for Mercedes, a Formula One record.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc qualified third with team mate Sebastian Vettel a distant seventh on a distinctly off day for the German.
The pole, won in a time of one minute 28.319 seconds, was a record-extending 86th of Hamilton’s career and his third of the season. The time was 1.7 seconds faster than the lap he did last year to take the top slot.
“The first lap was fantastic, really, really happy with it,” said the five-times world champion.
“The second run, I was on for one of the best laps I have done for a long time. And it’s crazy; it never gets old, it never gets easier and it’s always such a challenge, regardless of what position you are battling for.”
Hamilton lost time at the end, a gust of wind blowing the back of his Mercedes out of shape, but he was still comfortably quickest.
The Briton is 29 points clear of Bottas after seven races, all won by the pair. Hamilton also triumphed in the last two of 2018.
Bottas was fastest in the first two phases of qualifying, after also leading final practice, but could not match Hamilton’s sizzling pace when it mattered in the final top-10 shoot-out.
“The wind changed direction and there was a couple of corners my line didn’t work and I had to work it out but Lewis had a better lap,” said the Finn.
Mercedes have looked to be in a class of their own all weekend at a circuit suiting the characteristics of their car, with Hamilton or Bottas fastest in every practice session.
Leclerc, rather than Vettel, has consistently been the best of the rest.
Vettel struggled, backing out of his first hot lap and then failing to string together all the sectors smoothly on his second attempt.
“I don’t know what happened, I lost so much momentum there was no point to finish that lap,” said the German, who starts behind the Renault-powered McLarens of British rookie Lando Norris (fifth) and Spaniard Carlos Sainz (sixth).
“Some laps it felt good and others it didn’t. I didn’t get the best out of the car but it was difficult for me, some laps I didn’t have he grip I had before.”
Vettel’s time of 1:29.799 was eighth tenths of a second slower than Leclerc’s best.
McLaren’s performance was their best in qualifying since 2016, when now-retired Jenson Button qualified third in Australia.
Leclerc, who starts with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen alongside, asked the team over the radio to get Vettel to speed up, worried he might run out of time for a final quick lap.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo starts eighth for Renault and Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly lines up ninth — outqualified by Verstappen for the seventh time this year — for his home race.
Italian Antonio Giovinazzi starts 10th for Alfa Romeo.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Tony Lawrence