Lewis Hamilton made the perfect start to the French Grand Prix weekend by leading both practice sessions around Paul Ricard on Friday.
Looking to put the disappointment of losing the championship lead to Sebastian Vettel last time out in Canada, the reigning world champion actually posted his fastest time in the morning with a 1m32.231s.
That was due to rising temperatures in the afternoon and also a stiffer Mistral wind blowing and making conditions a little tougher for the drivers.
Hamilton's afternoon advantage was 0.7s over the Red Bulls, with Max Verstappen just ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, but the reality does appear more in line with the morning when it was the Australian on the tail of the two Silver Arrows, less than 0.3s off the pace.
Ferrari had a characteristically quiet day practice day, usually hiding their true pace until qualifying on Saturday, but that may not seem the case after Friday, with the Scuderia appearing genuinely a little behind the two teams in front of them.
As has also been the case on several occasions this season, it was Kimi Raikkonen who appeared to have the edge over teammate Sebastian Vettel, but the Finn is yet to convert his strong performance practice pace into a strong overall weekend.
Drivers get to grips with Paul Ricard
The story for much of the day was watching the drivers dial themselves into what is a relatively new circuit for many at Le Castellet and certainly new in modern Formula 1 cars.
Several corners proved notably tricky with Turn 6 catching out quite a few in the morning with four drivers spinning into the vast run-off areas around the circuit.
The two most significant incidents on the day saw Marcus Ericsson lose the rear of his Sauber in an instant entering Turn 11 in the morning, with the Swede slamming into the barriers side on and causing a fire to erupt, seemingly from an oil leak.
The second involved Sergio Perez in the afternoon as the left-rear wheel came free entering the Mistral Straight, seemingly because of a wheel nut failure, rather than being incorrectly fitted.
Another issue some struggled with was traffic as cars going slowly were unsure which part of the circuit to drive on and resulted in some near-misses, including for Hamilton and Raikkonen in practice one.
Dissecting the midfield
With lap times slower in the afternoon, building up a picture of the midfield order is quite tricky as some teams also bucked that trend.
One constant however, was Romain Grosjean as the Frenchman was the lead midfield runner in P6 in both sessions for Haas.
His teammate Kevin Magnussen backed up the American team's performance in P9 in the afternoon, as the car upgrade they brought for Canada two weeks ago appears to be yielding results.
Also present in the top 10 in both sessions was Pierre Gasly for Toro Rosso, as the more powerful Honda engine which Red Bull has signed up for in 2019 also continues to impress.
There was a worry right at the end of the day though when teammate Brendon Hartley pulled over with a fire in the exhaust of his STR13.
A late effort from the recent winner at Le Mans, Fernando Alonso, moved him into eighth in the afternoon, but the pace of McLaren remains mixed after a steady morning which saw both he and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne near the bottom of the timesheets.
Also struggling was Renault at their first home Grand Prix in a decade with neither Carlos Sainz nor Nico Hulkenberg managing to make it into the top 10 in either practice on Friday.
Charles Leclerc, who is now being linked more vigorously with a seat at Ferrari in 2019, enjoyed a solid day for Sauber with a best of P13, that despite a spin of his own approaching the chicane on the Mistral Straight.
The final Frenchman on track was Esteban Ocon in the Force India who has work to do following a tricky day left him well down the order and short of expectations.
With lap times faster in the morning, a full look at the results for both sessions can be seen below:
Mercedes back on top?
The main conclusion from Friday though was Hamilton and Mercedes returning to the top of the timesheets and looking pretty strong in the process.
A new engine, which is thought to be the upgraded unit that was meant to be used in Montreal, is certainly providing a little extra oomph down the straights while the shaved Pirelli tyres with a slightly thinner tread are also looking just as advantageous as they were in Barcelona last month.
Red Bull do look like strong competition though, particularly on the harder compounds of which they also have more sets compared to the German manufacturer, something that might help them come the race.
Ferrari and Vettel can never be counted out either so it will be fascinating to see how it plays out when all three top teams give it all they have on Saturday.
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