Ferrari’s higher downforce set-up could leave Charles Leclerc “exposed” against Red Bull during the French Grand Prix, according to Laurent Mekies.
Leclerc stormed to pole position for the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, making the most of a tow supplied by his Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz to pip Red Bull’s Max Verstappen by three-tenths of a second.
But while Ferrari enjoyed the upper hand in single-lap pace, Verstappen could have an advantage during the race as Red Bull are running a lower-downforce set-up than Ferrari have opted for.
While DRS usage is available on every lap during qualifying, Leclerc will not have access to DRS early in the race if he maintains his lead from pole – potentially an issue against the Red Bull if Verstappen can stay within a second of the Monegasque before the long back straights.
With the two leading teams going down different set-up routes for Paul Ricard, Ferrari’s sporting director Laurent Mekies has admitted holding off Red Bull could be a big challenge, especially given Sainz starts from the back of the grid due to an engine grid penalty.
“It will be tough,” Mekies told Sky F1 after qualifying. “We know the weekend doesn’t stop on Saturday. We know, overall, we have been quite fast on Saturdays. This one comes with a bit of better taste because we were not that fast this morning [in FP3].”
Mekies echoed Leclerc’s praise of Sainz’s willingness to play the team game during Q3 as he gave Leclerc a tow down the straight.
“We had great teamwork to achieve that pole position with Carlos’ help,” he said, before recalling memories of the team’s unhappy 2021 race when neither Leclerc nor Sainz made it into the points.
“But we don’t forget that on this sort of track, very front-limited with high degradation we suffered in the past, it will be tough tomorrow – there will be two against one and we expect a good fight.”
Asked whether the higher downforce set-up may turn out to be a mistake during the race, Mekies said their chosen level is where they had the most pace.
“It’s been a trend that we have been running slightly more downforce and therefore more drag compared to [Red Bull],” he said.
“I think each competitor looks at the characteristics of their car and then tries to put it in the best performance window and that’s where we felt our best performance window was.
“The trade-off is easy to see. You may get a bit of better tyre degradation with more downforce, but we will be more exposed. It’s been playing to our advantage and against us this year, let’s see tomorrow.
“The good thing about the sport is you get the answer on Sunday night. Whoever wins the race will have the best strategy, the best downforce level on the car, the best driver, the best teamwork!
“Jokes aside, it was not a surprise. We know it comes with some strategic implications, where we know we need to be careful not to expose ourselves in the race. We will see how to deal with it tomorrow.”
With pole-sitter Leclerc potentially a sitting duck down the straights against the pursuing Red Bulls, the title contender said it will be fascinating to see whether the championship leaders will surge through, or struggle with tyre life as they did during the Austrian Grand Prix.
“Only time will tell, I guess,” he said.
“I don’t know. We’ve got high downforce which, for tyre management, maybe it’s a little bit better, but on the other hand they are extremely quick down the straight. Following here is very difficult so we need to keep that first position, at least for the first few laps, and then manage our tyres in the best way possible.
“They probably see things differently than we do. So it’s interesting because we will see what is the compromise that works tomorrow. But if they win, we will have to understand how come.”