Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes expect Red Bull to press home advantage

Sport

Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team are expecting Red Bull to maintain their advantage in the coming races after Max Verstappen took victory at the French Grand Prix on Sunday. Verstappen won after a mighty battle with Hamilton that was decided only on the penultimate lap.

Mercedes believe they may have had the faster car, but the team have acknowledged that Red Bull will be on the front foot at what constitutes two home races in a row at the Styrian and Austrian grands prix.

Verstappen won at Paul Ricard despite having lost the lead to Hamilton after going wide at the first corner of lap one. He managed to pass the British driver through the first pit stops when Mercedes underestimated the advantage of the undercut Red Bull were able to take in pitting Verstappen first.

With track position Verstappen stopped a second time leaving Hamilton with the only option of trying to make his tyres last and hold the lead to the flag but was caught and passed by Verstappen with a lap and a half to go. Verstappen now has a 12-point lead in the drivers’ championship and, with Sergio Pérez claiming third in front of Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas, Red Bull have a 37-point advantage in the constructors’ standings.

Red Bull were solidly on top in qualifying, noticeably quickest on the long straights of Paul Ricard – a testament to the new Honda power unit they have taken, which the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, conceded put them in front in an area where Mercedes have previously dominated.

“It was a tough fight but I don’t see it as a positive [result],” he said. “They have made a huge step forward with their power unit, the introduction of the second power unit and their race car is good, no doubt about that, that’s why this is a tough one this year.”

When Hamilton had the lead he looked to have the pace to maintain it but he and Mercedes conceded the pit decision had been vital. Wolff believed their car was competitive but that his team had been outplayed by Red Bull.

“Our performance was good, I think we had the quicker car,” he said. “Probably we lost the race at the stop thinking that we had enough protection against the undercut which we didn’t. From then on we were on the back foot. We got it wrong on Sunday.”

The next two races follow in quick succession over two weeks at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Verstappen was anticipating a good performance at both from his team, who are on a roll they have not enjoyed since the turbo hybrid era began in 2014. After also triumphing at the previous two rounds in Monaco and Baku the hat-trick has been some time in coming. They last won three consecutive races in 2013 when Sebastian Vettel took the last nine of the season.

“I’m looking forward to it, first of all, because it’s like a home grand prix,” Verstappen said. “We’ve had good results in the past but it’s not a guarantee. We have to again set up the car well there and read the conditions well. I’m expecting it to be close again.”

Hamilton was fourth in the Austrian GP last year going on to win the Styrian GP a week later. While he acknowledged Red Bull’s newfound pace would be hard to match, he also expected another close fight.

“It’s a power-hungry circuit, got those long, long straights so we could see something similar to this weekend with the straight-line speed of the Red Bull,” he said. “But we’ve got three days to try and see if we can make any adjustments and improvements and if we maximise absolutely everything maybe we can give them a run for their money.”