RACE DEBRIEF

    Mercedes landed in the south of France full of hope that a return to a conventional racing circuit would help deliver a revival in their fortunes, after two lacklustre performances at street circuits in Monaco and Baku.

    And while it was Red Bull who ended the opening day of running at Circuit Paul Ricard on top, with Max Verstappen setting the pace, they were only a fraction ahead of the Silver Arrows, suggesting we may well have a genuine two-team fight on our hands for victory. Here are five things we learned from Friday practice...

    FP2: Verstappen tops second practice at Paul Ricard, just 0.008s quicker than Bottas

    1. Mercedes are looking stronger

    Mercedes have made the French track their own since the Grand Prix made a return to the calendar in 2018, with Lewis Hamilton winning both editions of the race.

    The circuit’s longer radius and faster corners play to Mercedes strengths, in contrast to the lower speed turns found in Monaco and Baku, as in theory, they shouldn’t suffer the same tyre warm up issues encountered at the last two venues.

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    Bottas set the pace in FP1; Verstappen narrowly set the pace in FP2 over the Finn

    And that proved to be the case after the two hours of running on Friday, with Mercedes collecting a one-two in the opening session, and following it up with a two-three in the second session, only 0.008s adrift of Verstappen’s leading time.

    READ MORE: Hamilton 'looking at every option' to improve, but says chassis swap made no difference at Paul Ricard

    When you take a driver’s best mini sectors and put them together to create an ideal lap, Valtteri Bottas moves ahead of Verstappen, with reigning world champion Hamilton slotting into second and Verstappen down to third.

    Our data team have crunched the numbers and the Silver Arrows seem to have the edge on one lap pace, around 0.05s clear. But there’s almost nothing to choose between them and Red Bull in terms of race pace.

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    It's so close in the race pace stakes but Red Bull are just ahead of Mercedes as per our analysis

    Bottas was certainly the happier of the two Mercedes drivers, the Finn having had the tougher time of late with two successive non scores. Hamilton, meanwhile, felt that while the times aren’t terrible, there’s certainly more to come.

    His trackside engineering chief Andrew Shovlin added: “In terms of pace we look reasonable and getting a single lap out of the tyres has seemed easier than it was in Baku or Monaco.

    “However, neither driver is totally satisfied with where we have the car, so we've got a bit of investigation to do overnight to try and understand how we can get the balance to be a bit more predictable.”

    READ MORE: ‘I can trust the car’ says Bottas after successful switch to Hamilton chassis in France

    2. Red Bull are very much in the hunt

    Verstappen was in high spirits when we chatted on Thursday afternoon, the Dutchman seemingly unfazed by Mercedes’ recent superiority at Circuit Paul Ricard as while he expected the Silver Arrows to be favourites, he was confident Red Bull could challenge.

    Max Verstappen says Red Bull 'improved' during Friday practice at Paul Ricard

    And after Friday’s efforts, that belief was well-founded. He admitted he wasn’t “entirely happy” with the car in FP1 and the start of FP2, but things started to improve dramatically when he stuck on a second set of tyres in the afternoon, as he went on to set the pace on the soft tyres.

    READ MORE: Perez says P12 in FP2 not as bad as it looks, while Verstappen pleased with Red Bull improvements

    His team mate Sergio Perez was down in 12th, but he didn’t get the best out of the car on his soft tyre run, the Mexican getting caught out by traffic – and overall, he feels pretty comfortable with the RB16B. And with some positive tweaks overnight, he’s supportive of Verstappen’s feeling that they are in the fight for top honours.

    They have a comfortable advantage over McLaren in qualifying pace – 0.52s – so a top-four start with both cars should be the bare minimum.

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    One lap pace shows that Mercedes only just have the edge over Red Bull

    3. Alpine are relishing a return to a conventional circuit

    Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso have preferred not to get carried away after strong Friday showings this year, such as in Portugal and Spain, and that remained the case in France, as they ended up fourth and sixth in the pecking order, inside half a second of the pace with Alonso just two tenths adrift of a Mercedes.

    The French team had been on an upward trajectory before heading to street tracks at Monaco and Baku, so their return to the upper end of the midfield shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. They are well set to get both cars into Q3 in qualifying – and should have the pace, according to our data, to score solid points with both, too.

    READ MORE: Alonso and Ocon relieved Alpine are back to ‘more normal’ pace with top-five showings in France practice

    However, they will face a genuine threat from McLaren, who didn’t cause much of a scene on the timing charts on Friday, but appear to have inherent pace around the 5.842km circuit, having crunched the numbers – and adjusted for various factors including fuel level and tyre life.

    In qualifying trim, McLaren have a 0.18s advantage over Alpine. When it comes to race simulations, Alpine close the gap to McLaren to 0.02s. A tight fight, then, for best of the rest.

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    Expect Alpine and McLaren to be close this weekend

    4. Ferrari drop back but remain in points contention

    Ferrari were at pains to play down their expectations for France, the faster nature of the circuit set to expose their straight-line speed deficit. They certainly weren’t as competitive as they were on the streets of Monaco and Baku – but they are still points contenders.

    Carlos Sainz had a moment in FP1, skidding off the track and ruining a set of tyres, but was otherwise up to speed quickly, while team mate Charles Leclerc felt he made good progress from the first to the second sessions.

    READ MORE: Ferrari drivers encouraged by Friday pace despite ‘back to reality’ performance at Le Castellet

    Qualifying could be very close, as while Ferrari are down in fifth in the pecking order, they are just 0.01s slower than Alpine and 0.19s adrift of McLaren. We’ve seen Leclerc give George Russell a run for his money for title of Mr Saturday this year, outdriving his Ferrari to secure pole in Monaco for example, so a third row slot is certainly not out of the question.

    That pace falls away in the race, 0.29s adrift of Alpine, but they remain fifth, just over a tenth quicker than AlphaTauri, so points with both cars could keep the battle for P3 in the constructors’ championship with McLaren interesting.

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    While there may not be a repeat of Leclerc's pole-sitting performance from the street races, Ferrari could still bag useful points here

    5. The wind will play a key part throughout the weekend

    Gusty. That would be the best way to describe conditions at a bright and toasty Circuit Paul Ricard on Friday. The breeze was welcome for the thousands of fans in the grandstands, but not so enjoyable for the 20 drivers out on track.

    Sebastian Vettel said he was caught out by the wind in FP1, sending his Aston Martin rear first into the wall and limiting him to just 16 laps in the session, but he wasn’t the only one to suffer, with several drivers including Yuki Tsunoda, Nikita Mazepin and Sainz losing control momentarily.

    READ MORE: Vettel blames wind for Turn 11 off in FP1 as he predicts stronger Aston Martin performance in qualifying

    2021 French GP FP1: Vettel crashes into the wall after big slide

    The wind was challenging for everyone, making it tricky to build confidence in the car. “It’s quite gusty as well, so one lap you do it feels alright and the next lap it can increase, so it’s not going to be easy to judge your mid-corner speeds,” said Verstappen.

    “But at the end of the day everyone has to deal with it and I’m sure we’ll try to find a good solution around it. It’s not easy also with the temperatures, it’s quite hot, but it’s nice.”