As Lewis Hamilton began his television interview immediately after taking pole position for the French Grand Prix, his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas crouched down by the side of the track. He was looking in Hamilton’s general direction, but staring into the middle distance, his face set.
Bottas looked for all the world like a man who knew his championship hopes were slipping away before his eyes. And perhaps because that’s the way it looks to everyone else as well.
The Finn came into this race 29 points behind Hamilton, and really needs to beat him on Sunday to pump some life back into his title challenge.
For much of the weekend, it had looked as if Bottas would start in the best possible way, with pole position. He had a small but decisive pace advantage, and Hamilton appeared to be struggling with his car, a big spin in second practice only the biggest piece of evidence for that.
But then in final qualifying, Hamilton brought his ‘A game’. A small deficit became a significant advantage, and his 86th career pole position – ponder that for a moment, it’s at least 18 clear of anyone else – was in the bag.
If Hamilton can convert that into a lead at the first corner, the win – a sixth in eight races – is surely in the bag, barring misfortune. For Bottas, even if he finishes second, it will be a long way back from there, against an adversary so formidable, in the same car, with no-one else threatening to regularly get in amongst the silver cars.
- Lewis Hamilton on French Grand Prix pole
- Chequered Flag podcast: French Grand Prix Preview
- ‘Bottas has to play hardball’
How Bottas’ hopes have unravelled
Bottas has not done a lot wrong this year; far from it. For much of it, he has looked a different driver from the man who faded so badly in the second half of 2018, and in qualifying he has been very close to Hamilton. In fact, until this pole position for the Briton, Bottas was actually slightly ahead on average qualifying pace. Now, it’s Hamilton who has the edge – by 0.06secs.
He has been toe-to-toe with Hamilton at most races. They have three poles each so far. After four races, Bottas was leading the championship by a point, the two men had two wins each, and a title challenge for Bottas looked very much on.
But since then, things have slowly slipped from his grasp. A second place in Spain behind Hamilton was followed by an unlucky third in Monaco, which would have been second but for a puncture caused by a collision in the pits with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Then, an off weekend in Canada really did the damage. Qualifying sixth after a spin, he lacked pace in the race and could finish only a lacklustre fourth. Hamilton, meanwhile, is on a run of three wins in a row, even if he owes one of them to Sebastian Vettel’s error, off-track moment and subsequent controversial penalty in Montreal.
All the while, Hamilton, who has admitted to struggling to get the best out of the car in qualifying, is giving the impression of slowly getting on top of it.
As he has proved so often in the last few years, once he has worked out how to get the best out of his Mercedes, he is close to unstoppable, and he looks to be building up that sort of momentum now. Bottas needs to find a way to try to stop it at Paul Ricard on Sunday.
“Not happy about today,” he said, “but ready to give it all tomorrow. Never give up. It’s a nice long run into Turn One, so hopefully I can do something there.”
For his sake, he needs to.
- French Grand Prix qualifying results
- BBC coverage of French Grand Prix
How Hamilton did it
After qualifying, Bottas said it was a change in wind direction for the final session that put him off his stride. Wind can seriously affect the sensitive aerodynamics of F1 cars, especially at an exposed track such as Ricard, and a number of drivers spoke of it making things difficult in Q3.
Hamilton, though, adapted better. He was ahead after the first runs, and while both drivers had moments in the penultimate corner on their second runs, Hamilton still improved. Bottas’ lap was already a scrappy one, and it ended his chances altogether.
“The first lap was fantastic, really, really happy with it,” Hamilton said. “However, I knew it was still relatively close and I needed to find some more areas in which I could improve. I went out for that second run.
“The second run, I was on for one of the best laps I have done for a long time. And it’s crazy: it never gets old, it never gets easier, and it’s always such a challenge, regardless of what position you are battling for.
“I was up four-and-a-half tenths coming into the second-to-last corner, but it’s really gusty out there, and I think I just lost the back end, partly through that or maybe going too quick.”
For Hamilton, the weekend started with him missing the media day on Thursday to attend Paris fashion week and, particularly, a memorial for the late fashion mogul Karl Lagerfeld, who died earlier this year.
As ever, there were those who criticised both Hamilton for doing it, and Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff for allowing it.
But after qualifying, Wolff expounded on his philosophy – which he says extends to everyone in the team – to give people the space they need to work in the best way they can.
For Hamilton, he says, this means, “not putting him in a corset”. Wolff gave the example of Singapore last year, which was preceded by Hamilton flying to Shanghai and New York to launch his fashion collection, then back to Asia for the race. There was criticism then, but Hamilton produced what Wolff described on Saturday as his “best ever” weekend.
France, Wolff said, was “another example”. For Bottas, it must be a dispiriting sight on occasion.
That’s more like it from Leclerc
Bottas was not the only man who needed a good weekend in France. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was another.
The 21-year-old has had a difficult few races and he came into this weekend 6-1 down to team-mate Sebastian Vettel in qualifying. No matter that the raw stats did not reflect the reality of the underlying performance, Leclerc realised he needed to sort out his qualifying form, and – refreshingly open and honest – he admitted it publicly.
His focus, he said, was on ensuring he got the car in the right place in final qualifying and – even more importantly – cut out the errors, small and big, that have blighted his season so far.
Leclerc was true to his word. Not for the first time, he looked to have the edge on Vettel leading up to qualifying, but this time he delivered on his potential, while the German had a weak session, complaining of losing momentum, and an inability to get a consistent feel for the car.
“I am pretty happy with the qually today and overall the weekend has been quite good,” Leclerc said. “One thing I focused on and we did well today was the set-up for Q3. Finally I have a car I was happy with in Q3 and that was my focus for this weekend but we need to confirm it at the next race.”
He is aware that challenging Mercedes in the race is unlikely to happen, but a solid run to third, with Vettel behind him, might be just what he needs as a springboard for the rest of the season.
McLaren edging back to form
No prizes for identifying the stars of qualifying – McLaren drivers Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz in fifth and sixth, the Briton just 0.009secs behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
Their performance not only underlined what has been an extremely impressive start to his grand prix career for Norris, but also the progress McLaren have made since the dark days of last year, when for the second half of the year they looked to have arguably the worst car on the grid.
Now, their car is on average the fourth fastest, and it is improving all the time. This was not the closest they have been to pole in percentage terms – Sainz’s qualifying in Bahrain pipped it – but it was a mark of the steps forward they have been making with the car that it came at Ricard, a track where, according to new team boss Andreas Seidl, they expected to struggle, as it should have exposed what until now were weaknesses in the car’s behaviour.
As befits their new modus operandi, the team are not getting carried away with it. For the race, Norris said it “doesn’t look like we could fight with Red Bull, but you never know”.
He added: “If we can just get some good points, if we can race the Red Bulls and kind of be around them, I think we can be happy.”
Seidl has been tasked with identifying McLaren’s deficits in infrastructure, and he revealed on Saturday that a decision had been made recently to build a new wind tunnel at their Woking base.
It should come on stream in two years’ time, and end their reliance on the Toyota tunnel in Cologne, which they have been using for nearly 10 years now, in what in old McLaren-speak might have been termed a “sub-optimal situation”, regardless of the Toyota tunnel’s quality.
McLaren might “still have a long way to go to catch the top cars”, as Seidl puts it, but they are clearly very much back on the right track.