It’s the summer solstice and the three-pointed Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport star is once again shining brightly, with its drivers clearly dominant on both of today’s free practice sessions for the 2019 French Grand Prix.
Championship leader Lewis Hamilton (1.32.738) was a whisker quicker than his team-mate Valtteri Bottas (1.32.807) in the morning session, with the positions reversed in the afternoon. The Finn was the only driver to go under the 1.31 barrier, with a best time of 1.30.937. That means he was the quickest of 21 rather than 20 drivers, as Williams had once again put Nicholas Latifi in the car for FP1, as it had done in Canada a fortnight ago. Hamilton improved to 1.31.937 in the afternoon, well over four tenths down on Bottas who is second in the championship. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the five times world champion, as he went off the track between turns 3 and 4 and spent a long time in the garage having a misfire fixed.
“It’s been very hot today, but we got through most of the programme. It’s been a bit difficult with the balance of the car; maybe that’s to do with the new tarmac they have here and the high temperatures, I think the track reached 55 to 60 degrees today. In general, the car pace is really good, we just have to fine-tune the balance. I didn’t do a very good FP2 lap, I had a big snap into Turn 3 which I thought was a good catch, but ultimately I had a small issue with the Power Unit afterwards and had to come to the garage. Otherwise it’s been a smooth day with no major problems,” said Hamilton.
The Mercedes proved to have an impressive race pace during the long runs, not just on the Medium tyres but also on the Pirelli Softs, which Bottas tried. As usual, the team’s closest rivals were Ferrari and Red Bull and they were both struggling a bit on the softest of the tyres brought here by Pirelli.
“It was not easy in the beginning; everyone struggled in the morning because the track was much more slippery than usual. But the track ramped up quickly, I could feel big gains on a lap-by-lap basis, especially in the corners. The more the track improved, the better the balance of the car felt. Despite the balance issues, the car was quick out of the box which is always a good start. We’ve made good changes between the sessions and I felt much more comfortable in FP2, which is why the lap time was better. It’s really warm out there, and it will only get warmer, so tyres are going to be on the limit, especially on Sunday. We still struggle with the balance over the course of the entire lap, so we’ll have a good look at the data tonight to see what we can improve for tomorrow,” added Bottas.
It was all much as expected behind the Mercedes: Charles Leclerc was third in 1.31.586, followed by his Scuderia Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel, fourth in 1.31.665. Scuderia Ferrari spent much of the time, especially in the first session, comparing different aero updates aimed at closing the technical gap to Mercedes.
“I am generally happy with how our sessions went today. The feeling in the car was good and we tested some new parts. We are confident but we still have a lot of work ahead of us to put the car in the best condition for a strong qualifying.
“Our competitors are strong and we must focus on ourselves to really put everything together for tomorrow. It was fun to drive on this circuit again. It is a bit of a different track to the others because the walls are so far away that you can push and try more during practice. I look forward to being back in the car tomorrow morning,” said Leclerc.
On a flying lap, the Italian team appeared to be second in the pecking order, but when it comes to race pace, it and Aston Martin Red Bull Racing seem more closely matched. Max Verstappen and to a lesser extent, Pierre Gasly, seemed to be on the pace on the Medium tyres.
From what could be seen today Red Bull might have to keep an eye on McLaren, who had a good turn of speed, fighting for a theoretical third row of the grid. In FP2, the Woking-based team had Lando Norris lying fifth in 1.31.882, ahead of Verstappen (1.32.049) and Carlos Sainz (1.32.432) in front of Gasly (1.32.448.)
It was not a particularly auspicious start to the weekend for those flying the French flag. The best of them was the aforementioned Gasly, while Romain Grosjean was 17th in a second session where he suffered from tyre problems, while in the morning he spent a long time in the pits because of a water leak. Home team Renault, brought plenty of updates but, at the moment, that didn’t see them continue the positive trend seen in Canada a fortnight ago. Daniel Ricciardo was 12th in FP2 (1.33.020,) with Nico Hulkenberg 14th in 1.33.081.
“Today was positive, although maybe the timesheets don’t reflect how the car actually felt. Across all our runs today, the car seemed good. Our Soft tyre run in qualifying trim was slightly tricky, especially with high track temperatures and maybe we missed out a little there. It didn’t feel that far off, and I’m certainly optimistic for tomorrow. The upgrades seemed positive and we have some data to go through to find further improvements,” added Ricciardo.
Returning for a moment to the Canadian GP, the matter of Ferrari’s request to a right to review the penalty imposed on Vettel by the stewards during that race was formally closed this afternoon in France. The Montreal stewards were at Paul Ricard to examine the dossier presented by Scuderia Ferrari, based on Article 14 of the FIA International Sporting Code. The stewards decided that “there are no significant and relevant new elements which were unavailable to the parties,” which means the results of the Canadian Grand Prix still stand.