Mercedes’ qualifying performance as a ‘slap in the face’
LE CASTELLET, France — Toto Wolff says Mercedes’ qualifying performance at the French Grand Prix felt like a “slap in the face” after the team fell short of expectations.
The track layout and smooth surface were expected to favor Mercedes, who have won all but one race at Paul Ricard since returning to the Formula 1 calendar in 2018, but Lewis Hamilton finished fourth on the grid and George Russell sixth, behind McLaren’s Lando Norris in fifth.
But more concerning than the grid position itself was the gap to Charles Leclerc in pole position. Hamilton said after qualifying he expected to be less than 0.3s ahead but found himself 0.9s behind Leclerc and over 0.6s behind. Max Verstappen.
“My last lap was great,” Hamilton said after the session. “I finished it and thought it was a brilliant lap, but I was still 0.9 seconds behind the guys in front.
“I don’t know why this gap has become bigger than in the last two races – they [Ferrari and Red Bull] are in their own league in terms of performance.”
Wolff said his team could not explain the lack of performance in France after a series of constant improvements in recent races and the addition of an updated floor to the car this weekend.
“Expectation management is a bit of a thing this year as we were slowly but surely coming back to the top,” Wolff said. “There were good signs at Silverstone, then we went to Austria – a track we’re not normally competitive at all – and we were close.
“Then we brought a pretty good update package to Paul Ricard, a track that’s flowing, and we go looking for them and then no performance… like, no performance. We can’t understand.
“We can’t figure out what was wrong. We’ve been experimenting with rear wings, with almost the biggest we’ve had, which Lewis described as dragging a parachute behind him in the morning, to a smaller version that makes us lose too much speed in the corners.
“Then we experimented with the tire temperatures and you can see we are now 0.7s behind Verstappen – the Ferrari lap is a bit of an outlier with the tow here with Sainz – but if you told me we would be 0 .7s for 0.9s behind before the weekend would be a bit of a slap in the face.”
Hamilton lost the majority of his time to Leclerc on the final sector of the lap, which features a series of medium-speed corners. During practice, the team experimented with different wing levels to try and recover cornering performance, but found that the extra downforce came at the cost of increased drag, which in turn hemorrhaged times at the turn in straight lines.
Asked if there could be a fundamental problem with Mercedes’ aerodynamic trade-off between downforce and drag, Wolff added: “I wouldn’t know if it’s the aero per se, but we see in one session that we are absolutely uncompetitive in the first sector, then in the third quarter we are the best in sector one and the reverse in the last sector.
“Clearly there is something going on, whether it’s wind or tire performance, where the car is on the edge and between hero and zero there’s a super fine margin that we don’t understand. not.”