At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Ferrari is in desperate need of sparking its 2019 Formula 1 season into life.

Despite introducing a raft of new updates aimed at reducing the deficit to Mercedes, Ferrari remained off the pace of its rival throughout the French Grand Prix weekend.

Back-to-back tests of the upgrades on Friday proved inconclusive, leading Ferrari to revert back to its old floor, keeping only the new front and rear wings and brake ducts.

Charles Leclerc turned in a lap 0.6s shy of Lewis Hamilton’s pole effort in qualifying and managed to finish right on the gearbox of the second-placed Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, acting as some encouragement for Ferrari on what otherwise turned out to be another frustrating weekend.

Still riled by his controversial Canadian Grand Prix penalty - which robbed Ferrari of what should have been its first win of the year - Sebastian Vettel appeared out-of-sorts throughout and was out-qualified by both McLaren in a lowly seventh, before recovering to fifth at the flag on Sunday.

With Hamilton claiming his sixth victory of the season at a canter, Vettel has now fallen 76 points adrift in the championship, while Ferrari faces a mammoth task to turnaround a 140-point gap to Mercedes in the constructors’ standings.

But even in its latest defeat, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto insisted the developments brought to Paul Ricard had helped close the gap and that his side is heading in a positive direction.

“We knew this circuit [Paul Ricard] would be tough for us and to finish with Charles right behind Bottas is encouraging,” Binotto said post-race in France.

“The developments we have introduced since the Spanish GP have allowed us to close the gap and we have shown that we are on the right path.

“Some of these updates have proved to be very useful, others unfortunately less so, but we know that we have potential to improve significantly.

“At this point, we are confident, aware that there is still a lot to do, but that we have the ability to develop the car and to be competitive on all tracks.”

The Red Bull Ring should play to the strengths of Ferrari’s 2019 challenger due to mainly being made up of straights with next to no slow speed corners, which has proved the SF90’s Achilles’ Heel so far this season.

While the hope of Ferrari mounting any form of title challenge appears to be dwindling fast, Austria should at least prove to be a closer battle after Mercedes went unchallenged in France.

Mercedes wary about reliability

Last year’s Austrian Grand Prix marked the first time Mercedes failed to win the event since the Spielberg circuit returned to the F1 calendar in 2014.

Mercedes took a front-row lockout in 2018 but its race unfolded when both cars were hit by rare reliability failures, resulting in the team’s first mechanically-induced two-car retirement of the V6 hybrid era and its worst result since the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

After dominating the start of the 2019 season with eight consecutive victories, Mercedes heads to Austria with a comfortable buffer in both championships. Hamilton leads Bottas, who is something of an expert at the Red Bull Ring having taken back-to-back poles at the track in 2017 and 2018, by 36 points.

While on paper everything appears to be rosy, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff insists the German manufacturer has faced a multitude of near race-ending issues during the past two races.

“This year, our race finishing record has been good, but it would be complacent to ignore the fact that for two weekends in a row now, our mechanics had to perform the equivalent of "open-heart surgery" on our cars,” Wolff said.

“We've faced a number of different issues on different components, each of which could have easily caused us to retire, so we need to get on top of those challenges as quickly as possible.”

Wolff is also anticipating a resurgence from Ferrari at a circuit which, in theory at least, should favour the Scuderia, while he has concerns about cooling with temperatures expected to reach north of 30 degrees throughout the weekend.

“I think when you look at Ferrari’s strengths this year is power, and we are not able to match them this year,” he added.

“Up the Styrian hills that can certainly be to their advantage, and on the cooling this year we are marginal.

“We are certainly looking to optimise the situation but looking at the forecast in Spielberg with 32 degrees. That could be much more difficult for us to manage."

Mercedes has an enviable record in Austria since its return to the F1 calendar in 2014, taking four successive victories until its run came to a halt in 2018.

Can Red Bull repeat its 2018 success?

Red Bull took full advantage of Mercedes’ double retirement last year to score its third victory of the 2018 season as Max Verstappen landed a popular home win for the team.

Fast-forward 12 months and the Dutchman has continued his impressive form to be one of the standout and consistent drivers of the campaign.

He is yet to finish lower than fifth and has taken two podium finishes in Australia and Spain, but despite vast improvements coming from new engine partner Honda, Red Bull has not yet been able to challenge for any victories.

Verstappen will likely be fronting Red Bull’s charge in Austria, with Pierre Gasly unable to match his teammate so far this season, managing a best result of fifth place in Monaco.

But Verstappen is remaining realistic about his and Red Bull’s chances heading into the weekend.

“We'll probably finish fourth or fifth, though that depends on Ferrari making mistakes,” he admitted.

“Maybe even third if both Ferrari's make a mistake! We're just lacking pace at the moment, you have to accept that and in the meantime keep working hard on the car and mostly the power unit, too.

“You can see Ferrari and Mercedes have made another step and Renault too, I think ours was just not big enough here so we have work to do.”

Since Verstappen’s victory in Spielberg last year, the pendulum of form has swung dramatically in favour of Hamilton, who has racked up 14 victories out of the last 20 races.



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