By Abhishek Takle
(Reuters) - Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen pulled off the unexpected on Saturday when he snatched a comfortable French Grand Prix pole for Red Bull at a track that had until now been a happy hunting ground for rivals Mercedes.
The Dutchman, who leads Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton by four points in the overall standings, was in a league of his own around the 5.8-kilometre Paul Ricard circuit.
His lap of one minute 29.990 seconds made him the only driver to breach the 1:30 barrier and was good enough to beat seven-times world champion Hamilton by 0.258 seconds.
Verstappen's qualifying display followed an even more dominant showing in final practice earlier on Saturday when he lapped 0.747 seconds quicker than Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas, who qualified third for Sunday's race.
“I knew it was going to be better than the last time we were here but this good I didn't expect,” said Verstappen after taking his second pole position of the season and the fifth of his career.
“This has traditionally not been an amazing track for us but to be able to put it on pole here, of course we're super happy about that.”
Mercedes have been dominant at the track at Le Castellet in southern France since it joined the calendar as host of the returning French Grand Prix in 2018.
The team topped every practice and qualifying session for the 2018 and 2019 races, with Hamilton going on to win both from pole. The race did not take place last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reigning champions had hoped the venue would set the stage for a return to form after disappointing outings at the last two races in Monaco and Baku.
“It's been a difficult weekend because we are just lacking pace,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told Sky F1.
“It looked much worse than in the end where we ended up but we just need to gain everywhere.”
For Red Bull, it proved that their speed around the street layouts in Monaco and Baku had carried over to the more conventional layout of Paul Ricard, after having been beaten by Mercedes at similar venues in Portugal and Spain.
Verstappen is hopeful he can get the job done and deal Mercedes their first defeat at the circuit on Sunday.
“I’m so confident that we can have a good race car anyway, so it’s going to be a long race. It will be a tight battle but I’m looking forward to it.”
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Clare Fallon)