Gap to Red Bull in French GP qualifying ‘a lot bigger than we hoped’ says Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton has been the man at the Circuit Paul Ricard since F1 returned in 2018, taking pole and victory in two consecutive years here. And because of that record, and Mercedes having expected to resume ‘normal service’ on the more conventional layout of the French Grand Prix track, Hamilton couldn’t help feeling a touch disappointed after qualifying over quarter of a second off Max Verstappen in P2.
The reigning champion, who swapped chassis with team mate Valtteri Bottas ahead of the weekend, had looked off-key in all three free practice sessions in France, finishing FP3 down in P6. But late changes to his Mercedes W12 ahead of qualifying seemed to do the trick, with Hamilton ultimately able to outqualify Bottas and take P2 on the grid.
But despite that, he couldn’t deny that the gap of 0.258s to Verstappen – at a track that has always been a happy hunting ground for Mercedes – had been a shock.
“It’s a lot bigger than we’d hoped,” said Hamilton of the gap. “They’ve been so fast these past races and jeez… We are pushing and giving everything we can, but I think they’ve just got a strong package at the moment. But we’re close. I think today they were beating us more on the straights. So we’ve got work to do to improve.”
Hamilton went on to discuss the changes he’d been making on his car, saying: “It’s been a really, really hard weekend, mentally... just trying to get the car into a happy place. You wouldn’t believe how many changes I’ve made since Practice 1, going round and round, kind of chasing the tail… and it wasn't really making much difference, I was still struggling.
“Eventually we made some changes literally 10 minutes before [qualifying] and was like, 'just go with it, let’s see what we can do',” he added. “In quali it was much, much better, so I think it will be good tomorrow, but generally yesterday [Red Bull] were quicker than us on a long run, so it's going to be a challenge to follow. But there's lots of opportunities tomorrow, hopefully.”
Bottas, meanwhile, looked to have rediscovered his mojo in practice after a difficult Azerbaijan Grand Prix that saw him finish the race in P12, with the Finn either P1 or P2 in every practice session at Paul Ricard.
But because of that strong performance, Bottas said he couldn’t help being dissatisfied with only claiming P3 on the grid, 0.386s off Verstappen, and 0.128s behind his team mate.
“I was reasonably happy with the car, so actually quite disappointed to be third because it's been otherwise a strong weekend and I really thought we could fight for the pole,” he said. “But I think Red Bull and Max just had a bit of an upper hand in the quali spec.”
Going into the French Grand Prix – where Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez will start just behind the two Mercedes in P4 – Red Bull hold a 26-point advantage over the Silver Arrows, while Verstappen sits four points clear of Hamilton in the drivers’ standings.