The Paul Ricard circuit which hosted the French GP since its return to the calendar in 2018 has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for the silver arrows cars. Lewis Hamilton has won the two editions to be held there, from lights to flag, after having secured the pole position on Saturday.
However, it was a completely different scenario on Saturday afternoon, as the Red Bull of Max Verstappen stormed to pole, with a two and half tenths advantage on the Mercedes pair of Hamilton and Bottas.
If the top-3 qualifying results looked familiar, they did not tell the full story of the seven-times world champion’s weekend. Hamilton struggled in his weekend build-up, as he couldn’t match the pace set by his teammate Valtteri Bottas, in any of the practice sessions.
Some theorized that the reasons of the defending champion’s struggles might be related to him having swapped his chassis with the one of his teammate Valtteri Bottas. Toto Wolff — Mercedes team principal —, was adamant that the chassis swap was a standard procedure of the team, as they could always bring a new chassis in case of need.
"We swap out around all the time, this is part of the planning, of this carry over chassis, you know they run for a second season so we're not accumulating millions of miles on one and basically that's part of the plan.”
“But it's good to get the feedback and if it calms the drivers’ mind, we have a spare chassis which is a brand new one and we can always do that."
Ultimately, Hamilton managed to hook up all his efforts in a qualifying lap that was good enough to place him in second place behind Max Verstappen, ahead of Bottas and the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez.
"We've got a race on our hands, and we're loving the battle! We're gonna keep pushing, keep fighting and giving it everything"
Exiting his car for the post-qualifying interview, Hamilton sounded satisfied with his result, reflecting on a “really hard weekend mentally” as he and his team of engineers tried to get the Mercedes car into a good performance window. The Briton asserted that the exercise felt like “chasing our tail” on set-up, but was happy to prove any theories about the chassis swap wrong.
“I saw you come up with some myth, and so I was happy to be able to prove it wrong - the quality of our engineers’ work, you know, all the cars are exactly the same.” he said to the interviewer Paul Di Resta.
Hamilton praised the job of his rival Max Verstappen, as he recalled that the pole sitter was driving with a fresh new engine, anticipating a great battle in the race ahead.
“Congratulations to Max, he did a great job today. They’ve been incredibly quick. You see they've got a new engine this weekend, not a new spec or anything as far as I'm aware, but anyway, they're quick down the straight.”
“I think it was a lot of time on the straight today, so we've got a race on our hands, and we're loving the battle. So we're just going to keep pushing, keep fighting and giving it everything.”
Although Hamilton felt uncertain about Mercedes’ long-run pace from Friday’s practice running, he took confidence from the changes that had been made on his car since then, as he also predicted a potential rain masters battle, should the weather allow it.
"In practice, it was a real struggle and our long run pace, I think [Red Bull] were a tenth or two quicker than us on a long run,”
“But my car is in a much different place now. So I’m just going to stay hopeful, do everything that I can obviously.”
“We're in second, you've got a fighting chance at least down to Turn 1 and there's going to be some interesting strategy probably tomorrow.”
“I don't know, maybe [there is] rain, so you get to see kind of potentially get to see the rain meisters do their thing. I'm excited.”