Behind the top four, the stand-out performance came from Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard initially found the more nervous turn-in characteristics of the Ferrari tough in comparison to team-mate Charles Leclerc, but is now more comfortable in the car, as he was in Monaco and Baku before compromised qualifying sessions prevented him from showing the full potential of both car and driver.
This time though, he had the better of Leclerc from the start of the weekend. Perhaps it was assisted by his controlled steering inputs, especially in sector three, while the more aggressive Leclerc struggled with the front. It’s just the second time this season that Sainz has outqualified Leclerc, who got to within 0.14sec of Carlos on his final Q3 run to line up seventh.
Sainz has always been something of a Ricard specialist. He likes the atmosphere at a track which actually provided his passport to F1 when, in 2014, with Helmut Marko in attendance, he won both World Series by Renault races to all but secure him the title and a 2015 Toro Rosso seat.
The man he beat into second place in those races, Pierre Gasly, is the man who spilt the Ferraris on the grid when he qualified his Alpha Tauri in the top six for the fifth time in seven races.
“It’s a difficult track in terms of the tyre drop-off,” Gasly offered. “I wasn’t fully happy with the car in practice but made some changes for qualifying and it’s good for us to split the Ferraris and outqualify McLaren.”
Team-mate Yuki Tsunoda, by contrast, was back in the wars after qualifying eighth and finishing seventh in Baku. He dropped his car in the Mistral chicane, went backwards into the tyres and out in Q1 for the fourth time in seven races. Even discounting those mishaps, he has the biggest average qualifying deficit to a team-mate (0.52sec) on the grid — a surprise perhaps, given the pace shown in pre-season testing and the Bahrain season-opener.
Lando Norris maintained his 100% Q3 qualifying record in 2021 and starts eighth with the first McLaren, 0.13sec clear of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo as Fernando Alonso managed to split the papaya orange cars with the first Alpine.
There is increasing evidence that Alonso is getting more and more comfortable, outqualifying team-mate Esteban Ocon for the second successive race and now just 3-4 down in their personal qualifying head-to-head against the man who has just inked a three-year contract extension at the French team.
Ocon found the Alpine fantastic on the softs – he was a couple of hundredths quicker than Alonso in Q1 – but missed out by just over a tenth when he also tried to clear Q2 on the medium. Eleventh though, with freedom of tyre choice, is not the worst place to start tomorrow.
Mick Schumacher gave Haas its first Q2 qualification in 13 races, albeit through crashing at the end of Q1, bringing out the red flag and preventing the likes of Raikkonen and Latifi from challenging his time!
George Russell was another not to finish his Q1 lap – which was on course to be a good one – and so, after missing FP1 in favour of Roy Nissany, had just the one Q1 run to maintain his ‘Mr Saturday’ tag and extend his record of never being outqualified by a team-mate. It was close: he beat Latifi by just 0.002sec in Q1!