Ferrari dominated practice at the French Grand Prix, but the true competitive picture isn’t so rosy for Maranello as the raw time sheet suggests.
The Italian team has arrived in France having won two grands prix on the bounce and optimistic that gains from recent upgrades will give it an edge at Circuit Paul Ricard, a track that on paper is at best finely balanced between its car and Red Bull Racing’s RB18 .
A major floor upgrade for this weekend should help the cause, and the team resulted topped both practice sessions, with Charles Leclerc leading the way in FP1 and Carlos Sainz taking the baton in FP2.
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The margin the two Scuderia drivers wielded over Max Verstappen in third was more than half a second, a shockingly large number considering the tightness of the championship fight to date.
There was some exaggeration in the margin on RBR’s side of the equation, with the team still working to find the right set-up for what is a relatively well rounded technical challenge as a circuit.
“We just didn’t really get the balance like we hoped for, but also we are trying a few things with the car,” Verstappen said on Friday night. “So we’ll have a look at it all for tomorrow and of course try to be closer than what we were today.”
Understeer was his main problem, unsurprisingly so around this front-limited circuit, particularly given the sizzling 60°C track temperature.
“The tires are running really hot and it’s very difficult to judge really where you are. But we know of course that we still have a little bit of work to do.”
THE DANGER AHEAD FOR FERRARI
But single-lap pace is only part of the story, and even if the order remained unchanged come Saturday afternoon — an unlikely scenario anyway — Red Bull Racing will be confident it can reverse its fortunes from the Austrian Grand Prix and get one back over Ferrari in-race trim.
In fact the scale of the one-lap gap would appear to be more than reversed over long-run average pace.
Long-run averages (medium tire)
Red Bull Racing: 1:37.725 (4 laps)
Ferrari: 1:38.476 (5 laps)
Mercedes: 1:38.544 (3 laps)
Alpine: 1:39.367 (8 laps)
Aston Martin: 1:39.385 (8 laps)
AlphaTauri: 1:39.602 (5 laps)
McLaren: 1:39.605 (4 laps)
Williams: 1:39.733 (9 laps)
Alfa Romeo: 1:40.014 (4 laps)
Haas: 1:40.340 (7 laps)
There are some caveats on the above times, as always. The first is the number of laps completed by Verstappen and Leclerc as the quickest drivers of their teams. Verstappen’s four representative laps came during a short seven-lap run, while Leclerc’s five laps came during a much longer 11-lap stint interrupted by traffic.
It would suggest Ferrari still has more pace in hand yet to be expressed.
There also has to be some accounting for Ferrari adjusting to its new floor, a critical performance part. The team will expect to make a substantial step forward in terms of set-up before qualifying.
SAINZ TAKES PENALTIES
Ferrari’s lack of immediate race pace will be of some concern to Sainz’s side of the garage as the Spaniard prepares to serve a grid penalty for exceeding his allocation of power unit parts.
Sainz has taken his third control electronics unit for the season, breaching the two-unit limit for this part and thus incurring a 10-place grid penalty. He also took a new battery, but it was within his seasonal allocation.
But after Sainz’s power unit sensationally destroyed itself by setting fire to the rear of his car near the end of the Austrian Grand Prix, Ferrari was expected to give him a new complete motor and cop the back-of-grid start that comes with it, undoubtedly with an eye to shoring up reliability ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, which should be a strong match for the Ferrari car’s strengths.
The team took a similar wait-and-see approach to taking the full penalty when dealing with Charles Leclerc at the Canadian Grand Prix before eventually biting the bullet. It’s yet to confirm whether Sainz will likewise take the full set, but it’s unlikely the projected race pace deficit to Red Bull Racing will change his mind, especially considering the margin it has over the midfield.
WHAT’S HAPPENING TO MERCEDES?
Mercedes started the weekend optimistic that it could be competitive, with the circuit layout, smooth surface and warm weather all seemingly set to suit the W13 and combine to deliver it one of its most competitive weekends of the year to date.
It’s still early days, but that pace is yet to materialize.
George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were fourth and fifth and around three-quarters of a second off the pace, still comfortably ahead of the midfield but not really within striking distance of the front row.
The team looked more competitive in race pace, as the above list demonstrated, but then just how competitive the team is dependent on how you want to interpret the gap between Red Bull Racing and Ferrari. If RBR overperformed, then Mercedes is in the mix; if Ferrari underperformed, than the German marque looks set for another weekend sat solidly and solitary third.
“We have a lot of work to do, a lot of ground to cover still,” Lewis Hamilton admitted on Friday night. “Out car is not spectacular here. We don’t know why. But I’m sure hopefully overnight we can make a bit of a step.
“[It’s slow] just everywhere. It’s just every corner. We have to dig deep into the data, but it just feels like we’re lacking downforce today.
“We have worked to do. We’re a little bit further behind than we anticipated this weekend.”
Hamilton said he was still optimistic that he could snipe for a podium, but he lamented it was unlikely to come from mixing in with the frontrunners.
“Today we were fourth and fifth, so that’s kind of the region we’ll be fighting for,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t be on the podium — we can still be up there, but we’re still not as quick as those front guys. We’re a little bit further back than we were in the last race.”
Mercedes also brought a revised floor to France as well as a new nose and front wing as it moves away from troubleshooting and back to performance development, so undoubtedly there’ll be more pace on offer through set-up after overnight changes.
McLAREN UPGRADE LOOKS PROMISING
McLaren enjoyed a relatively successful day with its first major upgrade in some time — despite previous claims from team principal Andreas Seidl that the team was planning no new major updates as recently as the Canadian Grand Prix.
This package will have been deep in the pipeline when Seidl made those comments in June, and McLaren was also arguing for an increase to the cost cap at that time on the basis that it wouldn’t be able to pay its general expenses without breaching its spending allowance, never mind fund upgrades.
Regardless, the upgrade arrived for France and appeared to gel well with the car, with Daniel Ricciardo the first to use it during FP1 while Lando Norris provided baseline data with the old car before both drivers took the new package for FP2.
Norris ended the second session as the fastest midfielder, finishing sixth and a second off the pace. Ricciardo was three places and 0.4 seconds further back.
But the long-run averages are less flattering with the team languishing near the back of the midfield, albeit with Ricciardo using hards instead of mediums for his race simulation, and the drivers weren’t willing to say how big a step the package had been. .
“It’s not as much as what I would dream of, but yes, I don’t think we expected a lot of it,” Norris said. “We expected a small step and it’s still too early to say.
“I’ve just driven it and things feel different — some things a little bit better and some things we have to optimize and figure out. But yes, reasonable.”
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Ricciardo admitted he was worried about nailing set-up overnight to ensure the car would be competitive in race trim.
“I think there’s more to get out of it, so we’ll do some homework tonight,” he said. “On the long runs, I’m not really sure where we stand yet. I haven’t had a good look at that.
“I think I’m more worried about getting everything sorted from a set-up point of view and trying to understand that better after having had a whole day of running.”
McLaren is tied with Alpine for fourth in the standings. Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon were 11th and 18th respectively.