French GP: Lewis Hamilton on Friday practice ‘struggle’ as Valtteri Bottas leads Mercedes’ Red Bull challenge

Lewis Hamilton said his Friday practice at the French GP was still “quite a struggle” despite Mercedes’ return to form at Paul Ricard, as Valtteri Bottas spearheaded the world champions’ charge in a close fight with Red Bull.

After a well-below-par two-race stretch on the Monaco and Baku street circuits – where they scored a grand total of seven points from a potential 88 – Mercedes have, as title leaders Red Bull expected, bounced back on the more traditional F1 circuit in the south of France, on top in first practice and only 0.008s off Max Verstappen in the second session.

  • Practice Two: Max Verstappen back ahead of Bottas, Hamilton
  • The live French GP schedule on Sky Sports F1

But in that improved W12 car, it was Bottas and not Hamilton who appeared far more at ease, with the Finnish driver ahead of his team-mate in both sessions, even on a supposedly slower tyre compound in Practice Two.

And despite still finishing second and third on Friday, Hamilton was not entirely happy. Asked how he felt in comparison to the last two weekends, he admitted: “Not much different, to be honest.

“Even though the position is quite a bit different to Monaco and Baku, it’s been quite a struggle this weekend, probably for everyone.

“I don’t know if it’s the track surface, or the temperature, or these inflated tyres, it’s difficult to say but we’re all sliding around and it’s a struggle out there.”

Hamilton, 0.3s off Bottas in P1 and 0.2s in P2, admitted he would be “looking at every option” in a bid to improve around a baking-hot track which, despite plenty of run-off area, saw plenty of spins and even a few crashes on Friday.

“We’ve made lots of changes,” he added. “We will probably do a lot of analysis tonight with hope that it’s going to be better tomorrow but who knows, we won’t know until tomorrow.

“The times don’t look terrible, it’s close and we’re up at the front but at least we’re in the battle.”

Hamilton and Bottas have swapped Mercedes’ chassis for this weekend, a planned move from the Silver Arrows, although both drivers and team boss Toto Wolff have downplayed that having an effect on the results. Instead, it looks like Bottas has just regained form.

Bottas’ disappointing season – in which he has yet to finish ahead of Hamilton in a race – got even worse in Azerbaijan as he struggled outside the points throughout the weekend, but he appears to be confident again in France.

“It’s hard to say if it’s the chassis or the track conditions, but it’s a lot better feeling than two weeks ago that’s for sure,” said Bottas, who looks to be the man to beat considering his pace on the medium tyre in P2.

“We started the weekend on the right foot so I’m feeling quite OK, comfortable and pretty fast with the car so far.”

Who are the France favourites, Merc or Red Bull?

While Mercedes and Bottas’ turnaround was the more notable Friday story, Red Bull are still right there in the fight, as they have been all season. The team, 26 points clear of Mercedes in the constructors’ standings, didn’t seem to have the raw pace of Bottas but Verstappen still finished on top in the second session after making setup changes.

“In P1, I was not too happy,” admitted Verstappen, who is four points clear of Hamilton at the top of the standings. “In P2 we started still not amazing but on the second set [of tyres] the car felt a lot better, a lot more connected.

“It’s still really difficult around here, the track is very open, it’s quite windy out there so it’s not easy to nail the lap. I think overall it’s been a good end to the day so we can be competitive tomorrow.”

What does seem clear is that it’s a direct Mercedes vs Red Bull fight in qualifying, following Ferrari’s two surprise pole positions around the street circuits. In France, Charles Leclerc and team-mate Carlos Sainz have dropped back in to the midfield, which appears to be led by Alpine.

“It seems like it’s between us and Red Bull,” said Bottas. “I’m sure they have much more to come and so do we.”

Asked if he could challenge Mercedes, Verstappen added: “Difficult to say but for us today it was good.

“You never know what people can find overnight, but today for sure the long runs were also quite decent. For sure I expect it to be again very tight and definitely not easy.”

Azerbaijan GP winner Sergio Perez, meanwhile, finished down in 12th in Practice Two although insists it’s “not as bad as it looks” after hitting setup issues and traffic during the session.

“We just took the wrong direction,” he said.

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