5 things we learned from Friday practice at the French Grand Prix
As Circuit Paul Ricard basked in the glorious sunshine and sweltering temperatures, F1 teams got down to business trying to understand how their cars and tyres would cope in such conditions across the French Grand Prix weekend. After two 60-minute practice sessions, it seems no team is emerging as a clear frontrunner, which sets things up nicely…
1. Ferrari look mighty in qualifying trim
On paper, Ferrari look very, very strong. They topped both practice sessions, with a one-two in second practice that put the Italian squad more than half a second clear of the field. More impressive was that Carlos Sainz was able to crank out his leading time on the sixth lap of his soft tyre run.
But after our data team crunched the numbers, their advantage over Red Bull in terms of qualifying performance slims down to just over a tenth of a second. Considering Max Verstappen lost more than that by just running slightly wide at one corner, it’s too close to call.
Ferrari have a significant edge in slow- and medium-speed turns, according to our car performance data, but they are well-matched with Red Bull in the high-speed turns, like Signes.
However, they fall behind when it comes to race simulations, trailing Red Bull by around 0.1s per lap. Sainz focused more on long runs, as he’s out of the fight for pole courtesy of an engine penalty (that is likely to grow with more changes and confine him to the back of the grid), and he said while there is work to do, he’s confident they can get on top of things.
His team mate Charles Leclerc felt good, too – and reckons the pace is in the car. Some good homework overnight, then, could improve the picture significantly for the Prancing Horse.
2. Red Bull have the edge on race pace
Red Bull didn’t trouble the top of the timesheets, but with hot conditions expected throughout the weekend, making tyre management more important than usual, it’s significant that they were so strong on the long runs.
The data suggests they are only a tenth ahead of Ferrari in that metric, but Leclerc made a point of saying how impressed he was with Verstappen’s lap times on the long run and it’s widely felt across the pit lane that Red Bull appeared to comfortably be the strongest of all on higher fuel.
It's low fuel where Red Bull need to make the gains to make their life easier on Sunday. Verstappen struggled to find a good balance and suffered understeer in the opening sector. His team mate Sergio Perez had another disrupted Friday as “issues” prevented him from getting much time on the soft on low fuel.
But they remain in the top two in both qualifying and race metrics, have the best straight-line speed of anyone in the field and have proved consistently this season that they can make a good step from Friday into Saturday – so expect them and Ferrari to fight it out for pole and the win.
3. Mercedes closer to the main fight
Much of the chatter heading into the French GP weekend was that Mercedes should offer a more potent threat to F1’s leading two teams at Circuit Paul Ricard. The theory was the smoother surface, high-speed layout and warm all conditions should play to their strengths in what has been a difficult season.
And when they turned up with a series of upgrades, it only served to support that chatter. According to the timesheets, they looked closer – and are comfortably the third-best team – but when we crunched the numbers, the Silver Arrows are quite some way adrift.
That might explain why George Russell said afterwards that they were not as fast as they had hoped while Lewis Hamilton, was at a loss to explain why they the “car is not spectacular here” and reckons they are further back than the last race. And the team were disappointed not to get as much high fuel work done as anticipated.
All that said, the W13 was the second-best car in the medium-speed corners, only a fraction behind second-best Red Bull in the slow-speed stuff, and near enough a match for the top two teams in the high-speed turns. With a little work overnight, Hamilton is optimistic they can put themselves in the fight for a podium.
4. McLaren upgrade appears to be a good step
McLaren brought the biggest package of all to France, their first significant update since Barcelona, with Daniel Ricciardo getting it in FP1 and both the Australian and Lando Norris running it in the second session.
Both kept their cards close to their chest when asked how they felt the update performed and feel like they need more track time to understand the car as it feels different - but it is believed that initial signs are positive and the tweaks are a step forward, possibly as much as half a second depending on the type of track.
According to our data, they were the fourth fastest in terms of qualifying simulations, a solid 0.2s clear of nearest rivals AlphaTauri, so Q3 with both cars is a realistic prospect. The race pace isn’t so good, and they fall behind Alpine – but if they can get a handle on the new package quickly overnight and based on their good form at the track last year, there’s every chance they are in contention for very strong points.
5. Alpine and AlphaTauri offer midfield threat
AlphaTauri duo Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda have been crying out for upgrades, the team’s last coming way back at Imola, so there was much excitement in France when the Italian team brought a hefty new package.
They ran it on Gasly’s car in FP1 so they could get a back-to-back comparison and the step was impressive, particularly over one lap. The team added it to Tsunoda’s car in FP2 and overall, it looks like they are now contenders to get both cars into Q3. Race pace is trickier to call, but they are in the mix with Alpine and McLaren – so points, at least with one car, after three non-scoring races will be the target.
They’ll face tough competition from Alpine, who continued their relentless development push with yet more upgrades for the team’s and Esteban Ocon’s home race. The Enstone squad look particularly good in race trim, slotting into fourth in our charts.
There’s work to do on the balance, and like their rivals, the team found the hot conditions challenging. But they also have one more upgrade to bolt on the car on Saturday, which they hope will bring yet more performance.