Max Verstappen had looked like the man to beat in final practice and he had the measure of title rival Lewis Hamilton when it counted for pole position.
The Dutch driver was the only one to get into the 1min 29s to secure his second pole position of the season, outpacing Mercedes around a circuit the reigining champions have dominated in the past.
Valtteri Bottas fell away again after looking like the quicker Mercedes driver in the build-up to qualifying but his time was good enough to push Sergio Perez down to fourth.
Here is how qualifying at Paul Ricard unfolded.
Half of the field were out onto track immediately but it was a short-lived burst of action for those that made it out of the pit lane in the opening moments.
Yuki Tsunoda took three minutes to find the barriers, spinning at Turn One and hitting one of the only walls near the track. His crash brought out the red flags as he couldn’t select first gear to recover to the pits.
The session resumed with 14 minutes remaining without a single time on the board and a long queue at the end of the pit lane.
Charles Leclerc was the first to post a lap and his 1min 33.060sec benchmark was rapidly beaten by multiple drivers when the times started to filter through.
Red Bull posted an early one-two after the first runs, Max Verstappen half a second clear of Sergio Perez and 0.6sec ahead of both Mercedes drivers.
Lance Stroll was the first driver to have a time deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn Six, running four wheels over the white line on corner exit.
Hamilton was able to improve on his second run on his soft tyres to bring the gap down to 0.2sec behind Verstappen while Leclerc was at risk with his time down in 12th place following a second attempt.
Stroll was in 19th and without a time following his earlier deletion and the Canadian had to abort a flying lap due to traffic in a decision that proved costly.
The final runs were ended prematurely as Mick Schumacher found the barriers at the Turn Eight chicane, leaving Nicholas Latifi, Kimi Räikkönen, Nikita Mazepin, Stroll and Tsunoda as the drivers eliminated in the first session.
Schumacher was in 14th position and progressed into Q2 for the first time all season but his Haas was in no condition to take part, making a sizeable impact on the rear of the car and potentially damaging his gearbox.
Medium tyres were the order of the day for Q2 after the relatively unimpressive performance of the softs in the race runs during practice. Every driver other than George Russell opted for the yellow-walled tyre for the first runs.
Carlos Sainz set the pace to beat initially and neither Mercedes driver could match it. Verstappen took the top spot by 0.066sec until Perez bettered that by a further tenth of a second to restore the Red Bull supremacy.
Lando Norris was the next to lose a time for track limits at Turn Six having been comfortably inside the top 10.
Hamilton was again forced to put another lap on his tyres versus his closest rivals but posted the fastest time with a 1min 30.959sec.
Drivers ventured out once more with four minutes left of Q2 with Daniel Ricciardo, Antonio Giovinazzi and Perez opting for the soft compound tyres. Norris was seventh ahead of the last laps and winding up for an effort but was told to pit by his race engineer and promised an explanation later.
The rest stayed out and made marginal improvements if at all. Bottas put on a fresh set of mediums to go fastest of all but Esteban Ocon, Sebastian Vettel, Russell and Giovinazzi couldn’t improve into the top 10.
Red Bull and Mercedes stayed put as the light went green and everyone else took to the track for Q3. Verstappen blinked first in that standoff and was shortly followed out by Perez, Bottas and Hamilton, each on the red-walled soft tyres.
In the first runs, Pierre Gasly had his time deleted for track limits at T6 while Sainz again produced the best Ferrari had to offer over Leclerc.
Verstappen’s 1min 30.325sec was the marker to beat and was comfortably fastest as those behind posted their efforts. A 0.4sec margin back to Hamilton seperated the two title contenders while Perez had the measure of Bottas by 0.3sec for third.
Sainz was the only other driver within a second of the provisional pole time ahead of ex-Mclaren pal Norris and Alpine’s Alonso.
Leclerc complained about a lack of balance in his car stuck down in eighth but ahead of Ricciardo in the Ferrari/McLaren fight.
Mercedes were last in the queue for the final runs while nobody opted to risk it on medium tyres despite the relatively small performance difference this weekend between the two compounds.
Gasly was the first to get his time in to go fourth fastest as the track rapidly improved in the final moments.
Verstappen posted an improvemet in the first sector on his provisional pole time that was then beaten by Hamilton.
The Red Bull man dipped into the 1min 29s with a time nobody could quite match and he was the only one to do so.
Perez had gone second briefly before both Mercedes drivers displaced him to bump him down to fourth.
Sainz was third fastest before the main conteders crossed the line but his time was good enough for fifth position ahead of Gasly and team-mate Leclerc.
McLaren couldn’t get on terms with Ferrari as Norris bettered his team-mate once again and the duo were split by Fernando Alonso in ninth.
2021 French Grand Prix qualifying results
|1||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1min 29.990sec|
|2||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||1min 30.248sec|
|3||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||1min 30.248sec|
|4||Sergio Perez||Red Bull||1min 30.445sec|
|5||Carlos Sainz||Ferrari||1min 30.840sec|
|6||Pierre Gasly||AlphaTauri||1min 30.868sec|
|7||Charles Leclerc||Ferrari||1min 30.987sec|
|8||Lando Norris||McLaren||1min 31.252sec|
|9||Fernando Alonso||Alpine||1min 31.340sec|
|10||Daniel Ricciardo||McLaren||1min 31.382|
|11||Esteban Ocon||Alpine||1min 31.736sec|
|12||Sebastian Vettel||Aston Martin||1min 31.767sec|
|13||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo||1min 31.813sec|
|14||George Russell||Williams||1min 32.065sec|
|15||Mick Schumacher||Haas||No time|
|16||Nicholas Latifi||Williams||1min 33.062sec|
|17||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo||1min 33.354sec|
|18||Nikita Mazepin||Haas||1min 33.554sec|
|19||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||No time|
|20||Yuki Tsunoda||AlphaTauri||No time|