2021 French GP: Red Bull's Proving Ground
How Red Bull proved at Paul Ricard that it is ready for a fight.
“If we could beat them in France, we can beat them anywhere,” were the words of Red Bull team boss Christian Horner prior to the start of Sunday's awesome race. It was a return to a proper circuit in the form of Circuit Paul Ricard, with two street circuit races in Monaco and Azerbaijan separating the Spanish Grand Prix at the start of May. The two races were somewhat seen as giving title rivals Red Bull an advantage over current champion Mercedes, and that a return to more traditional circuits, Mercedes would regain the form.
For Red Bull coming into this weekend, the team were on a mission to prove it was now well able to be a constant challenger to Mercedes. Max Verstappen set the foundations on Saturday, taking pole position for the race with Lewis Hamilton behind him. Sunday proved to be much different than any other of the days on track, thanks to the low temperatures and rain on the morning of the race, washing away any of the rubber laid down by drivers with the surface of the circuit losing the grip laid down by cars over the weekend.
This, and a rise in wind temperatures was enough to send Verstappen into a slide at the first corner and briefly off the circuit before re-joining the circuit behind Hamilton in second. What seemed to be a shot gone at a good race already as Hamilton sped away felt bad, but soon we were to realise just how quick Verstappen was in that Red Bull.
Red Bull looked very strong all weekend. (Red Bull Content Pool.)
Behind in the second car in fourth, Sergio Perez had a steady start to the race, notably losing time to Valtteri Bottas throughout the first stint. Many people were convinced that Perez was deliberately doing this, in order to preserve his set of mediums for as long as possible to be able to only need to pit once. In true tyre-saving Checo fashion, this turned out to be exactly what Perez was doing.
With Ferrari's Charles Leclerc the first of the cars to stop on lap 14, Bottas entered the pits three laps later for a fresh set of hard compound tyres, with drivers now struggling on the low-grip conditions on track. Verstappen responded on lap 18, Hamilton a lap later. Thanks to an incredible out lap, Verstappen just edged the defending champion to the lead as the Briton came out of the pit lane. Perez, now leading the race thanks to going longer, went as far as lap 24 before pitting, ensuring much better tyres for a potential attack in the end.
Knowing something needed to be done to keep Mercedes behind, Red Bull turned the tables completely, calling Verstappen in for an unplanned second stop for mediums on lap 32. Re-joining in fourth, Max now had the opportunity to do to Hamilton what was done to him in Spain and use the much fresher tyres to quickly catch and pass the Mercedes. Soon closing up to teammate Perez in third after his stop, he was let past to chase after Bottas, while Perez declared to follow Verstappen and hunt the two Mercedes as a pair.
This is where it gets good. Like a pack of animals going after their prey, Verstappen and Perez shot ahead on faster tyres to catch the Mercedes pair. By lap 44, Verstappen had caught the back of Bottas. The Finn defended hard until a mistake at turn eight allowed the Dutchman to go side-by-side and eventually take the place through turn ten. Perez was next to pass Bottas on lap 49, as he shot past the Mercedes on the run to turn ten, well clear of Bottas as they came through the corner.
Off the back of his Azerbaijan victory, Sergio Perez did well to make the one-stop strategy work in tricky conditions. (FIA.)
Only three laps left to go and Verstappen was rapidly closing in on Hamilton. The pair drew closer until the penultimate lap, as Verstappen passed the Briton for the lead coming into turn eight, and remained there to take the victory a lap and a half later. Hamilton took second at the flag, as Perez held back Bottas for third, the Finn angry with his team for not listening to him about a potential two-stop strategy as Verstappen used.
You may have noticed me use the word 'hunt' in an earlier paragraph, and I may have used it on purpose. The reason for this is because that was exactly what it looked like. It looked like Mercedes were being hunted by Red Bull all race, and I cannot remember a race since the start of the V6 Turbo Hybrid Era that Mercedes were put in that position and were genuinely challenged on track.
Sure we have had many non-Mercedes wins since 2014, but all these were just through DNF's, driver mistakes or the odd out-of-character weekends we used to see commonly in places like Singapore or Malaysia. I can never actually recall a race where Mercedes were put in the exact position that they've become so accustomed to doing to Red Bull and Ferrari in recent years, but that's exactly what Red Bull did.
It was an amazing combination of team and driver, all working in perfect harmony. Max, for his outright speed and just as how he was able to recover that first corner mistake and make the two-stop strategy later in the race. Perez, for using his known tyre-saving skills to incredible effect when every other car struggled for grip, to come back flying in the end in third. And the team, for keeping on top of the strategy and trying something different. Something which was key to winning the team's third straight race of the year, the first time they have won three straight races since 2013, their last championship year. Is that a sign of deja-vu? We will just have to see.
It was a day to forget for Valtteri Bottas and Mercedes. (FIA.)
I was personally convinced that Mercedes would fight back, but it would've happened on the high-speed streets of Baku two weeks ago. But Red Bull took that courtesy of Perez, but you would have to be silly not to be sure of the Silver Arrows in France, the team that dominated the event since its return to the calendar in 2018. Sure, COVID ruled out last year's race, but it was not promising to see them caught out on a circuit where they should have been bulletproof.
Up until Monaco and Azerbaijan, I was yet to be convinced that Red Bull actually could be championship contenders, but after Sunday's race, now I am convinced. The leadership and skill of Max, a man actually younger than myself, and the experience and talent of Checo, somebody who has been exceeding in his first year in the tricky second car. It's a partnership that seems both friendly and professional, and it's one that works on track.
The team and Honda will be excited to no degree, Honda having delivered an updated power unit for the race. It is fantastic to see both sides of the Red Bull and Honda partnership being so successful in F1 again, and much like the drivers, the relationship between the two has been vital. In what does usually be a snore-fest around Paul Ricard, a dramatic race was enough for Red Bull to prove that they are in this to the very end.