The track layout and smooth surface were expected to favor Mercedes, which has won all but one of the races at Paul Rijkaard since its return to the F1 calendar in 2018, but Lewis Hamilton finished fourth on the grid and George Russell sixth behind McLaren’s Lando Norris in the Fifth place.
But what was more worrying than the network site itself was a gap with Charles Leclerc in first place. Hamilton said after qualifying that he was expecting to be within 0.3secs of the lead, but he ended up 0.9secs behind Leclerc and more than 0.6secs behind Max Verstappen.
“It was a great last lap,” Hamilton said after the session. “I finished it and thought it was a great lap, but I was still 0.9secs ahead.
“I’m not sure why this gap is bigger than the last two races – hmm [Ferrari and Red Bull] wise in their performance in the league.”
Wolff said his team could not explain the lack of performance in France after a series of steady improvements in recent races and the addition of fresh ground on the car this weekend.
“Managing expectations is a bit of an important thing this year, because we have been slowly but surely working our way back to the top riders,” said Wolff. “There were good marks at Silverstone and then we went to Austria – a track we don’t normally compete at at all – and we were close.
“Then we brought Paul Ricard a nice update package, smooth track, and set out to chase them and then there’s no performance… Like, no performance. We can’t tell.
“We can’t tell what went wrong. We experimented with the rear wings, about as big as we have them, which Lewis described as pulling an umbrella behind him in the morning, to a smaller version that makes us lose a lot of speed in corners.
“Then we were trying the tire temperatures and you can see we’re now 0.7secs off Verstappen – Ferrari’s lap is a little weird with the drag here with Sainz – but if you tell me we’re going to be 0.7secs to 0.9secs of pace before the weekend, that’s It would be a slap in the face.”
Hamilton lost most of his lap time to Leclerc in the final section of the lap, which features a series of mid-speed corners. While training, the team experimented with different levels of the wings to try to restore performance in the corners, but found that the added downforce came at the cost of increased drag, which in turn bled lap times on the straights.
When asked if there could be a fundamental problem with Mercedes’ aerodynamic trade-off between downforce and drag, Wolff added: “I won’t know if this is the aerodynamic car per se, but we see in one session that we are completely uncompetitive in the session.” First and then in the third quarter we are the best in the first sector and vice versa in the last sector.
“Obviously something is going on, whether it’s being affected by the wind or the performance of the tires, where the car is on the edge and between the champ and zero there is a very nice margin that we don’t understand.”