Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton battle on knife edge again in France

Separated by just four points in the championship and by 0.245s in qualifying at Paul Ricard on Saturday, there is no let-up in the championship battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton this year.

On Sunday afternoon, the two drivers will vie for position on the run down to Turn 1 at Paul Ricard, each not wanting to give an inch to his rival but knowing the slightest mistake could be devastating to his race result.

On the exit of Turn 2, which follows immediately after Turn 1, six yellow kerbs sit proud beyond the track limits, threatening to do serious damage to any car that gets forced wide.

In the first two practice sessions of the weekend, a repair bill in excess of $100,000 was racked up by Mercedes and Red Bull by minor mistakes at that point of the circuit, but given how finely poised the championship is this year, it will be the loss of performance caused by the damage that will be more costly.

If the two drivers make it through Turns 1 and 2 unscathed, we should be set for the most competitive French Grand Prix since the event returned to Paul Ricard in 2018.

Over the past two races at the circuit, Hamilton has led 105 of the 106 laps and taken two easy victories. A repeat on Sunday seems very unlikely.

Verstappen has the advantage of starting from pole position -- only his second pole of the season, joining the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix -- and seems to have a faster car.

Both drivers were pleased with their qualifying laps, but there was no denying Verstappen earned his place at the front of the grid for Sunday.

"I knew it was going to be better than the last time we were here [in 2019], but this good, I didn't expect," he said.

"So that's of course very promising for us and of course we just have to keep on going, keep on pushing, to try and make it better."

For Mercedes, which scored just seven points between its two drivers at the street circuits of Monaco and Baku in the past four weeks, the return to a permanent race track has helped its performance.

But it still wasn't a simple weekend for Hamilton, who struggled throughout practice to match not only Verstappen but also his own teammate, Valtteri Bottas.

"It's been a really, really hard weekend," Hamilton said. "Mentally, not physically, but just trying to get the car into a happy place.

"You wouldn't believe how many changes I've made since practice one, going round and round, chasing the tail, ending up coming back to something similar to where we started."

In the end, Verstappen's advantage over Hamilton was found mainly on the straights in sector two of the lap.

Part of the straight-line speed advantage may be attributed to the fresh Honda engine in his car for this weekend, but it was also down to the smaller rear wing Red Bull was able to use without sacrificing cornering speed.

A smaller rear wing creates less aerodynamic drag and offers more straight-line speed as a result, but it usually comes at the expense of downforce in the corners.

Yet the combination of the Red Bull rear wing and the fresh Honda engine directly in front of it seemed to offer the best of both worlds.

"The new Honda engine will have a bit more horsepower, I guess, which is pretty normal if you put a new engine into the pool," Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said.

"And on the other side they ran a much less draggier rear wing than us, which in absolute lap time is good for them, but for us wouldn't have functioned, because even with their lesser downforce rear wing they were still able to do the sector time through the corners in sector three that we had.

"For tomorrow in the race, it might be an advantage for us [to have more rear downforce and protect the tyres], but in the end it will come down to having the tyres in the right window again."

Once again, the battle at the front is simply too close to call.