Verstappen topped FP3 but wound up qualifying behind his title rival, who was boosted by Ferrari deploying tow tactics considering Carlos Sainz’s upcoming engine-change penalty.
Red Bull has been running a lower-drag wing arrangement at Paul Ricard, which resulted in Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez heading every top speed measuring point in qualifying as it is allied to the team’s rebadged Honda engine’s potent power output.
At the Paul Ricard speed trap just before the Mistral chicane, Perez had a 3.8mph advantage over Leclerc in qualifying when all engine modes are at their optimum and fuel is at its lowest, while Verstappen was quicker by 3.7mph.
The low-drag approach means it is harder for drivers to build the critical tyre temperature required to nail the technical opening sector at the French track, but it will come into its own in the race for Red Bull as the higher-downforce-running Ferrari will not be able to use DRS to shed drag unless its cars are running close behind others.
Per GPS track data Autosport has seen, Ferrari has also been clocked running much faster through the high-speed corners around Paul Ricard – notably Signes and Le Beausset, where in the latter its gains were thought to be around 6mph in FP2.
But the Ferrari drivers will likely not be able to push flat out in the race using their higher-downforce advantage without eating through their front tyres, which will also wear correspondingly faster as Ferrari seems to be heating its tyres better than Red Bull.
A similar situation cost the then dominant Mercedes squad in the 2020 70th Anniversary GP, where Verstappen won after his persistence and better tyre wear paid off.
When asked by Autosport if he expects Red Bull’s wing choice to help in Sunday’s race, Verstappen replied: “I hope so.
“We seem again very quick on the straight, which is a nice bonus. But I think overall we need to look a bit into our high-speed performance.
“Overall, whatever wing we’ve put on the car we’ve always been struggling a bit in the high-speed compared to Ferrari.
“But, around here the tyres are going to be incredibly hot tomorrow and you cannot push the high-speed as much as you of course do over a quali lap.
“So, then I hope that top speed can help us out a bit more than over a qualifying lap where you also have DRS at some places.”
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, on the grid after Qualifying
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
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