Ruthless Rosberg storms to third pole in a row

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Nico Rosberg has secured his third pole position in a row during qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix on Saturday, edging out teammate Lewis Hamilton who completes an all-Mercedes front row.

Despite the weather threatening to rain on Rosberg’s parade, he set a fastest time of 1:13.876 late on in Q3 to finish on top, overcoming the threat of both Red Bull drivers who qualified 3rd and 4th, with Sebastian Vettel outqualifying Monaco-specialist Mark Webber. Former Monaco winners Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso finished P5 and P6, but their teammates failed to make it into the final session. McLaren enjoyed a good qualifying session to finish 7th and 9th, Perez ahead of Button, split by Adrian Sutil. Jean-Eric Vergne completed the top ten for Toro Rosso.

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Q1 got underway with most drivers going out on the intermediate compound due to the brief rain shower before qualifying. Jules Bianchi’s qualifying only lasted a few minutes, with an airbox fire forcing him to pull over at Casino Square. The early pace was set by Mark Webber, lapping well done on Rosberg’s quickest time in practice earlier in the day, but the times only became faster and faster as the track dried out. As a drying line emerged, it became a case of being on track at the right time, and Nico Rosberg returned to the top of the timesheets with around 5 minutes to go, only to be beaten by teammate Lewis Hamilton. Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean’s mechanics worked hard to try and get both cars back on track, but there wasn’t enough time for Ferrari. Grosjean enjoyed better fortune, getting out with a few minutes to spare, and the Frenchman even managed to end the session P4 behind Pastor Maldonado, Jean-Eric Vergne and Fernando Alonso. Joining Bianchi and Massa in the dropzone were Paul di Resta, Charles Pic, Esteban Gutierrez and Max Chilton, with Giedo van der Garde making it through to Q2 for Caterham.

The rain persisted at the beginning of Q2, causing many drivers to get out early in an attempt to post a banker lap on the intermediate tires. Q1 star van der Garde made the most of his foray into the second session by running as high as 5th at one point. After the track began to dry out though, the teams opted to switch their drivers to super-soft tires, causing a flurry of action in the pits. With space being notoriously difficult to find in Monaco, the final few minutes became particularly tense as the first times were set on the dry compound. Webber, Raikkonen and Rosberg all had a spell at the top, but it was Vettel who eventually finished quickest. Alonso and Adrian Sutil both required a last-ditch lap to make it through, bumping van der Garde out, although he did finish ahead of Maldonado. Hulkenberg, Ricciardo, Grosjean and Bottas also failed to make it through to the final session, paying the price for mistiming their final runs.

All ten drivers went out early in Q3 on the super-soft tire, vying for pole at a track where qualifying is important to secure a good result in the race. Both Rosberg and Hamilton went quickest early on, but Red Bull soon topped their rivals to lead after the first set of runs. With spots of rain returning to the track, it became a question of getting out early towards the end of Q3. Despite the weather, the majority of drivers managed to improve towards the end of Q3, with Mercedes re-establishing their dominance. Hamilton crossed the line to beat both Red Bulls and appear to secure pole position, only for Rosberg to go less than one-tenth quicker and secure his third pole in a row.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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