Mercedes improve but Hamilton struggles

After a miserable couple of weekends in Monaco and Baku, Mercedes appears to be back in the hunt for a win in France around a more conventional circuit that was expected to better suit its W12 car. After all, Mercedes has dominated both events at Paul Ricard since it returned to the F1 calendar in 2018.

Mercedes desperately needs to respond to Red Bull’s back-to-back victories and Valtteri Bottas got the team’s weekend off to a positive start on Friday by topping the opening practice session from teammate Lewis Hamilton, though it was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who set the pace in the afternoon.

The current F1 world championship leader edged out Bottas by just 0.008s in FP2, with the Finn’s best time coming on mediums compared to Verstappen’s soft-shod effort.

Bottas faces an uncertain future amid intensifying rumours that he could be replaced by George Russell at Mercedes next year, but on Friday at least, he provided the perfect response to what has been a hugely difficult start to the season.

Bottas credited his improved form to the fact he could “trust” his car again, even if he is left unsure whether his greater comfort with his Mercedes has been influenced by the chassis swap with Hamilton.

In contrast, Hamilton appeared to struggle to match Bottas all day and ended FP2 over two-tenths behind his teammate.

Despite suggesting he felt there was something fundamental wrong with his car, Hamilton played down the chassis swap, reporting that his car felt no different to the previous race in Baku.

Intrigue over lack of soft tyre pace 

Varying performance between the teams on the soft tyres made Friday practice particularly intriguing, with neither Mercedes driver able to extract the best from the red-walled compound during the FP2 qualifying simulation runs.

Bottas could not improve, while Hamilton only found 0.1s. Tyre warm-up has proved to be something of an achilles’ heel for Mercedes so far this season, but they had hoped it wouldn’t be as much of an issue this weekend due to the amount of medium and high-speed corners at Paul Ricard.

Others did gain extra time on the softs, including Verstappen who went fastest. Pirelli’s data points to the soft tyre being around 0.6s faster than the mediums, suggesting that Mercedes has plenty of performance in the bag providing it can successfully get the tyres into the optimum working range.

“It’s a struggle this weekend I think probably for everyone,” Hamilton explained. “I don’t know if it’s the track surface or it’s the temperature or these inflated tyres, they’ve put the pressures up higher than ever before - one of the highest - it’s difficult to say.

“We are all sliding around and it’s a struggle out there for everyone. They all feel pretty bad but I think the hard is probably the better feeling one because it seems quite a heavy duty with the temperatures here.

“So the softer you go, the worse it feels. I imagine the hard will be the one that most people can’t wait to go onto but I am not really quite sure which tyre is quickest.”

Alpine fighting to be best of the rest?

Alpine caught the eye on Friday afternoon as two-time world champion Fernando Alonso impressed with a time good enough for P4 and within half a second of Verstappen’s benchmark time.

Esteban Ocon, who committed to a new long-term deal with the French squad ahead of his home race, capped off an encouraging day by finishing sixth, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc splitting the Alpine pair. Ferrari scored back-to-back poles in Monaco and Baku but was bracing for a performance drop off in France.

If Friday’s running is anything to go by, it looks as though the battle to be best of the rest behind Red Bull and Mercedes will end up being a tightly contested affair between Ferrari, Alpine, McLaren and AlphaTauri.

Kerbs give teams a pricey headache 

The kerbs at Turn 2 were a talking point on Friday after both Bottas and Verstappen damaged their cars by running over them in practice.

Bottas was the first to have an off-track excursion at Turn 2 early in FP1 as he went for a wild ride over the kerbs and sustained damage to his front wing and floor, prompting Mercedes sporting director Ron Meadows to complain to race control.

After Verstappen lost part of his front wing over the kerbs in FP2, Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley joined the calls to remove the kerbs to avoid car damage, suggesting the use of an electronic timing loop to police track limits instead.

Race director Michael Masi responded by saying he would look at the issue before Saturday’s running gets underway, though he stressed teams had been calling for ‘hard’ track limits in recent times.

Speaking about his off, Bottas added: “It’s up to us, as a driver, if you push too much you go there, but it’s really penalising.

"I think I broke some bits on the floor, and I don’t think I was the only one. It’s quite harsh, for sure it’s a hard limit, we cannot go any further, so it might be a discussion point. We’ll see.”