LE CASTELLET, France — Toto Wolff said Mercedes’ qualifying performance at the French Grand Prix felt like a “slap in the face” after the team failed to meet expectations.
The layout of the track and its smooth surface was expected to favour Mercedes, which has won all but one of the races at Paul Ricard since it returned to the Formula One calendar in 2018, but Lewis Hamilton ended up fourth on the grid and George Russell sixth, behind McLaren’s Lando Norris in fifth.
But of more concern than the grid position itself was the gap to Charles Leclerc on pole position. Hamilton said after qualifying that he was expecting to be within 0.3s of the front, but ended up 0.9s off Leclerc and over 0.6s off Max Verstappen.
“My last lap was great,” Hamilton said after the session. “I finished it and thought that was an awesome lap, but I was still 0.9s off the guys ahead.
“I am not sure why that gap has got bigger than the last two races — they [Ferrari and Red Bull] are in their own league performance wise.”
Wolff said his team could not explain the lack of performance in France after a series of steady improvements at recent races and the addition of an updated floor on the car this weekend.
“Expectation management is a bit of a thing this year, because we were slowly but surely working our way back to the front runners,” Wolff said. “There were good signs in Silverstone and then we went to Austria — a track where we are normally not competitive at all — and we were close.
“Then we brought quite a nice update package to Paul Ricard, a track that’s smooth, and off we go to hunt them down and then no performance… like, no performance. We can’t figure out.
“We can’t figure out what went wrong. We experimented with rear wings, with almost the biggest we have, which Lewis described as dragging a parachute behind him in the morning, to a smaller version that makes us lose too much speed in the corners.
“Then we were experimenting with tyre temperatures and you can see we are now 0.7s to Verstappen — the Ferrari lap is a bit of an outlier with the tow here with Sainz — but if you would told me we would be 0.7s to 0.9s off the pace ahead of the weekend then that would be a bit of slap in the face.”
Hamilton lost the majority of his lap time to Leclerc in the final sector of the lap, which features a series of medium speed corners. During practice, the team experimented with different wing levels to try to claw back performance in the corners, but found the added downforce…