After seven wins from the first eleven races of the 2022 Formula 1 season, Red Bull arrived at Circuit de Paul Ricard having gone two consecutive race weekends without a grand prix victory for the first time all year.
After a stretch of six race wins from Imola to Montreal, losing to Ferrari in back-to-back rounds was a sign to some that Red Bull had finally been caught by their rivals. But after having no answer to Ferrari’s pace during the race in Austria, Max Verstappen showed no signs of worry – simply explaining that the gap in performance was down to Red Bull taking a wrong turn on set up early in the weekend.
Heading into the French Grand Prix weekend around a fast, flat and technical circuit with copious run-off, there was perhaps no better venue to test just how good Ferrari’s package truly is halfway through the season. After the first day of running, there are reasons to think that both of the two top teams should be anxious of the other.
Looking at the times sheets, it’s easy to assume that Friday could not have gone much better for Ferrari. Fastest with Charles Leclerc in first practice, followed by Carlos Sainz Jnr leading a one-two in the second session. Verstappen’s best effort in the second hour was half a second away from Sainz’s best. But could he have gone even faster?
Sainz set his quickest time just after the half hour mark in the session on his second push lap on his set of soft tyres. Leclerc did the same shortly after. Verstappen’s radio during the session suggests he also wanted to try a second push lap, but Red Bull were concerned about losing too much of the final half of the session in which they would carry out their high fuel runs.
“We’re not going to try again, another lap?,” Verstappen asked race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase after being called into the pits.
“It’s just [going to cost us] time at high fuel, Max,” the world champion was told. “Your first lap was competitive. Second push laps for both Ferraris have gone quicker by five or six tenths, but your first lap relative to theirs was competitive. I’m happy to go with that.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to start P3 or P4,” Verstappen later replied.
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Verstappen’s anxiety over his one lap pace could reveal a couple of things. Clearly, the Red Bull driver considers Leclerc as strong opposition for pole position on Saturday, but with Sainz guaranteed…