(Reuters) -Red Bull’s Formula One world championship leader Max Verstappen pushed Mercedes off the top of the timesheets in French Grand Prix practice on Friday with the battle between the teams looking as close as ever.
The 23-year-old Dutch driver lapped Le Castellet’s Paul Ricard circuit in one minute 32.872 seconds in the afternoon, 0.008 quicker than Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas who led the first session with a lap of 1:33.448.
Bottas set his best lap on the slower medium tyres, however, rather than the softs used by Verstappen.
“The car felt a lot better, a lot more connected,” said Verstappen. “It’s still really difficult around here, the track is very open, it’s quite windy out there so it’s not easy to nail the lap.
“But it’s been a good end to the day so I hope we can be competitive tomorrow.
“I expect it to be again very tight.”
Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton, four points behind Verstappen after six races, was third in the hour-long session and also on the softs.
The two Mercedes drivers have swapped chassis since the last race in Azerbaijan.
“There’s something not right with this car, man,” Hamilton said over the radio.
After two tough street races, with no points in Baku two weeks ago, Mercedes are hoping for a return to winning ways at a southern circuit they have dominated since its return to the calendar in 2018.
Hamilton won from pole position in 2018 and 2019, and Mercedes had led every practice session since the return until Verstappen’s effort.
The pace of the Red Bull indicated that this year could be a lot closer, although Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez, winner in Baku after the Dutch driver crashed out with a tyre blowout, was 12th quickest.
“It’s quite a struggle this weekend, probably for everyone. I don’t know if it’s the track surface or the temperatures or these inflated tyres with the pressures up higher than ever before,” said Hamilton.
The minimum tyre pressures have been increased after failures in Baku, one of which cost Verstappen the race win.
“I’m looking at every option,” continued Hamilton. “We’ve made lots of changes, we’ll probably do a lot of analysis again tonight with the hope that it’s going to be better tomorrow but who knows?
“The times don’t look terrible, we’re close up at the front so at least we’re in the battle.”
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso was fourth in the second session, ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Esteban Ocon in the other Alpine.
Several drivers, including Bottas, damaged their cars and tyres on the kerbs at turn two and brightly painted abrasive run-off areas in the first session. Verstappen lost part of his front wing in the second.
Teams openly expressed concern about the cost at a time of budget caps.
Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel hit the barriers backwards and nursed his damaged car back to the pits, a set of tyres wrecked.
“Those yellow rumble strips on the exit of turn two have done an awful lot of damage to our car. They are just too aggressive,” complained Mercedes sporting director Ron Meadows over the radio to race director Michael Masi.
“It’s quite harsh,” agreed Bottas of the kerbs. “Obviously it’s up to you as a driver if you push too much and go there but it’s really penalising.
“I think I broke some bits in the floor and I wasn’t the only one.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Hugh Lawson)