French GP: Verstappen sets pace in last practice, Hamilton fifth

The 23-year-old lapped the 5.8-kilometer Paul Ricard track in one minute, 31.300 seconds in his Red Bull.

Max Verstappen

Red Bull's Max Verstappen in action during practice at Circuit Paul Ricard, Le Castellet, France on Saturday.   -  REUTERS

Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen marked himself out as favourite for pole position after setting the pace in Saturday's last practice session for the French Grand Prix, with title rival Lewis Hamilton nearly a second slower in fifth for Mercedes.

The 23-year-old lapped the 5.8-kilometer Paul Ricard track in one minute, 31.300 seconds in his Red Bull.

Valtteri Bottas, who topped Friday's opening practice and fell just 0.008 seconds short of beating Verstappen in the afternoon session, was once again second for Mercedes.

But the fired-up Finn, who heads into the weekend having failed to score in the last two races and with speculation surrounding his Mercedes future, was a whopping 0.747 seconds behind.

Spaniard Carlos Sainz sprung a late-session surprise to put his Ferrari third.

Hamilton, who trails Verstappen by four points in the overall standings, lapped 0.966 seconds slower than his rival, slotting in behind fourth-placed Mexican Sergio Perez who took victory at the last race in Baku.

READ | Verstappen keeps Mercedes behind in French GP practice

The Briton, who has swapped chassis with Bottas this weekend, is looking to bounce back after picking up only seven points over the last two races, including drawing a blank two weeks ago in Baku.

Lando Norris was sixth for McLaren ahead of Alpine pair Fernando Alonso and home hero Esteban Ocon. Compatriot Pierre Gasly was ninth for AlphaTauri with Australian Daniel Ricciardo 10th for McLaren.

Verstappen's fiery display puts him on course to further erode Mercedes' dominance at the Paul Ricard track with a second pole of the season later on Saturday.

The reigning champion had led every practice session ahead of the two races the circuit has hosted since joining the calendar in 2018, with Hamilton going on to win both from pole. The French Grand Prix was not held last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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