Lewis Hamilton says he faces an uphill struggle to wrest the championship initiative back from Max Verstappen after claiming there was something wrong with his Mercedes during Friday’s practice for the French Grand Prix.
The seven-time world champion failed to trouble the top of the time charts in either practice session here at the Paul Ricard circuit, an hour outside of Marseille, with Max Verstappen ending the day fastest.
Not only slower than his Red Bull rival whom he trails by four points in the standings, Hamilton also finished both one-hour sessions behind the out-of-form Valtteri Bottas.
The Finn was fastest of all in the morning running and then trailed Verstappen by just 0.008 seconds, with Hamilton two tenths back in the day’s concluding action.
“There is something not right with the car, man,” an alarmed Hamilton told his race engineer, Peter Bonnington as he struggled with the handling of his machine.
Hamilton’s early lack of pace is curious given he has dominated the two races staged at the Paul Ricard circuit following the track’s return to the Formula One calendar in 2018, winning both editions from pole position.
It also comes after Mercedes swapped over Hamilton and team-mate Bottas’ chassis after the latter qualified 10th and finished a miserable 12th in Baku.
Mercedes say the switch is to even out the mileage on the two cars and a planned rotation of parts.
But while times in practice must be treated with caution, Hamilton, who finished seventh in Monaco and then out of the points in Azerbaijan after running off the road in his pursuit of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, did not sound like a man brimming with confidence.
“Even though my position is different to Monaco and Baku, it is quite a struggle this weekend and it doesn’t feel much different to be honest,” said Hamilton, who finished 11th in practice at the last round.
“I am looking at every option. We have made lots of changes and we will do a lot of analysis tonight in the hope that it will be better tomorrow.
“The times don’t look terrible – we are close to the front – so we are in the battle. But Red Bull have been leading for a while now and you can bet they would be quick.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said his star driver could switch to a new chassis if his troubles continue into practice on Saturday morning.
“We swap parts around all the time, and this is part of the planning – to carry over chassis for a second season so we’re not accumulating millions of miles on one,” said Wolff.
“But it’s good to get the feedback and if it calms the driver’s mind, we have a spare chassis which is a brand new one so we can always do that.
“You listen to the engineers and they say there shouldn’t be any difference between the chassis, but if the driver feels that there is, then it’s definitely not worth trying to make a point here. You just need to change.”