Red Bull’s Formula One world championship leader Max Verstappen pushed Mercedes off the top of the timesheets in French Grand Prix practice on Friday as the battle between the two teams heated up.
The 23-year-old Dutch driver lapped Le Castellet’s Paul Ricard circuit in one minute 32.872 seconds in the afternoon, 0.008 quicker than Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas who had led the morning session with a lap of 1:33.448.
Bottas set his best lap on the slower medium tyres, however, rather than the softs used by Verstappen.
Seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton, four points behind Verstappen after six races, was third in the hour-long session and also on the softs.
The two Mercedes drivers have swapped chassis since the last race in Azerbaijan.
“There’s something not right with this car, man,” Hamilton said over the radio.
After two tough street races, with no points in Baku two weeks ago, Mercedes are hoping for a return to winning ways at a southern circuit they have dominated since its return to the calendar in 2018.
Hamilton won from pole position in 2018 and 2019, and Mercedes had led every practice session since the return until Verstappen’s effort.
The pace of the Red Bull indicated that this year could be a lot closer, although Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez, winner in Baku after the Dutch driver crashed out with a tyre blowout, was 12th quickest.
Verstappen is four points clear of Hamilton after six rounds.
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso was fourth in the second session, ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Esteban Ocon in the other Alpine.
Several drivers, including Bottas, damaged their cars and tyres on the kerbs at turn two and brightly painted abrasive run-off areas in the first session. Verstappen lost part of his front wing in the second.
Teams openly expressed concern about the cost at a time of budget caps.
Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel hit the barriers backwards and nursed his damaged car back to the pits, a set of tyres wrecked.
“Those yellow rumble strips on the exit of turn two have done an awful lot of damage to our car. They are just too aggressive,” complained Mercedes sporting director Ron Meadows over the radio to race director Michael Masi.