An Ignorant American on the French GP
This week, we were ALL ignorant for once. Welcome to my world.
Welcome back to Ignorant American F1! Warning: there are no “French surrender” jokes in this article. I may be an American, but even I know when a punchline has been played out. Instead, I’m going to show you an extremely relevant close-up photo of a Mexican pastry. I’m not kidding, see for yourself.
This weekend’s Grand Prix at the Circuit Paul Ricard marked the beginning of the first ever F1 “triple header.” The colossal effort of setting up for 3 race weekends in a row in three different countries seems like a diabolically-designed test of the organizational strength of each team from top to bottom - and a test of the strength of my marriage and my relationship with my kids, since I will be watching ALL of it. The French Grand Prix we just witnessed, which took place at an actual a test track, inaugurated this vicious time of trial by scrutinizing each team and exposing many of their serious faults in glaring ways. Although the weekend at Paul Ricard looked like it was going to be another Barcelona, and for Hamilton it pretty much was, the 8th Grand Prix I’ve ever seen was a tense event that delivered some surprising conclusions. Here are my ignorant American observations about it, because I just love you so much.
For once it was nice to be on equal footing with a lot of F1 fans, and even a few of the drivers. Paul Ricard hadn’t hosted a F1 race since 1990, and although some of the drivers knew the track very well from different testing projects, none of them had raced there in a F1 car. This means that, at least for this weekend, I wasn’t the only ignorant fan watching Formula 1! Even all the experts shared a small piece of my inexperience and had to actually watch the race to see what would happen. Finally having some company in my part of the grandstands made my bearded heart even warmer and fuzzier. Oh, how I’ll miss you all in Austria.
The viewing experience did take some getting used to. The track at Paul Ricard is a bewildering maze of red, white and blue that looks like a French flag projectile-vomited a minotaur’s labyrinth. The camera angles over the weekend left a lot to be desired, and the race could have definitely benefited from more camera towers and aerial shots. Because the track rises and falls with the land, often only the top of a car was visible over the crest of a small rise, and it was difficult to tell what turn you were seeing at any given moment. All of this together - dazzling colors, limited cinematography, and the fins of cars swimming around the track like a bunch of meandering sharks - meant that it took a while to get my bearings and to understand what I was seeing. But when your brain finally maps what’s happening, wow do Turn 11’s concentric circles look cool, and with those straights it really is a fast circuit that made for great racing. Definitely worth it.
Now we come to the Mexican pastry. As the commentators explained during practice, Paul Ricard is usually a test circuit. The huge runoff areas are there so that expensive test cars have a wide margin for error that, in the case of an off, allows for adjustment instead of total rebuilding. The psychedelic colored stripes in the runoffs are a special high-friction surface embedded with glass that is supposed to sufficiently slow an offed car so that it can avoid a collision with the barrier. That all sounds great. But man, does it not work. This is a Mexican pastry, known as a “concha” or an “esponga,” depending on your region of origin:
Turn 11 looks delicious from this angle.
Its defining characteristic is a colored sugary topping arranged in parallel lines, and all weekend the Circuit Paul Ricard reminded me of an esponga (because that's the part of Mexico that my wife is from and she's pretty insistent). Also, and this is the point - I think the sugary topping of an esponga would be about as effective at stopping race cars as the friction paint they actually use. In FP 2, a little gust of wind the loss of the rear sent Ericsson’s Sauber skating across those friction strips as smoothly as if they were a frozen pond. Probably stunned at the ineffectiveness of the special surface to slow his slide, Ericsson sat there against the barrier with his car on fire for what seemed like an eternity before a marshal finally got his attention and he climbed out. Scary stuff. If any driver was tempted not to take the new circuit seriously because of its runoffs, unpredictable wind, sudden rain storms, Ericsson’s off, Perez’s tire launch, Stroll’s Dukes of Hazzard kerb jump, and Grosjean’s close-up wall inspection in qualifying really put the fear of Paul Ricard into everybody. A track as colorful and strange as a weeping clown’s pillowcase? Yes. But also a test track that WILL test you, and bite if you don’t approach with the proper respect. Paul Ricard is a great circuit, and I hope F1 returns next year.
Now, we’ve seen a lot of action on Lap 1 at other circuits this year, but the complexity of that first chain of collisions at Paul Ricard kind of boggles the mind. Seb had a start that was “too good,” according to Seb, and sank Bottas’ battleship with a puncture. Gasly torpedoed Ocon and immediately eliminated 2 of 3.5 Frenchmen at their home GP. Someone hit Grosjean and made him run wide. Max took very evasive action across the runoff and handily ended up in 2nd. Seb’s car started throwing sparks and needed a new nose, Kimi hit somebody somewhere, and there were all kinds of other bumps and contacts all through the midfield. It took the full duration of the safety car to see all the replays of who hit whom, and even then I didn’t get the whole picture until Paul Di Resta explained it after the race with the aerial view on that stupid Skypad thing. Even the FIA spent all race investigating incidents and handing out penalties, although I'm not sure that Vettel deserved what he got or that the penalty even had that much of an effect on the race.
Hamilton made it away clean, which accounts for his ability to hold onto the lead, but unlike Barcelona he didn’t disappear over the horizon. Young Max kept close to Lewis all throughout the race in a piece of really excellent driving work. But behind places 1 and 2, the cards were definitely shuffled by the Lap 1 chaos and they continued to be rearranged for all 52 subsequent laps. Vettel and Bottas had to chase each other from the rear all the way through the pack, and one common complaint about F1 was definitely not true for the French GP - there was overtaking, and a lot of it, on corners and straights and in the pit, especially as Bottas hunted Vettel all through the midfield. Hey since everyone has suggestions to better F1, here's mine - reverse the grid order after qualy! So far, every race that has started with a top-tier driver in the rear has been exciting. Making the front-runners the back-markers and forcing them to race through the midfield will certainly improve overtaking. Maybe even make it a surprise - have all the cars line up on the grid in proper order after the formation lap, then right before lights out reverse the direction of the race. Everyone will have to do a 17-point turn and head the opposite way, the front row hunting the lead again through heavy, confused traffic.
Anyway, eventually a rough pit stop cost Bottas a shot at recovery, which was probably especially frustrating since he would have had a real chance to beat Vettel because of the 5-second penalty given to the Ferrari driver. Sainz had 3rd for a while but his Renault tragically lost power. Leclerc, doing very well with the equipment he had, was in 6th until Kimi caught him up. Ricciardo had some aero damage and held onto 3rd for as long as he could, but Kimi drove like a methodical beast and eventually took the bottom podium step from the struggling Red Bull. Alonso eventually gave up on his hurting McLaren and pitted to try for a fastest lap on new tires, but then Stroll had an epic blowout and caused a virtual safety car for the last few laps and denied Alo even that. So many other interesting things happened in the midfield that I don't see how to rehearse them all. Hamilton kept 1st, Max kept 2nd, and Kimi took third, and just going back over my notes showed me how much this was a REAL race.
For me the winners of the weekend were Red Bull for great pitstop execution, Kimi for a great drive, Max for a great drive even with a rear-end shudder, Hamilton for a great drive, Magnussen for a solid 6th for Haas, and Leclerc for a point in a Sauber that is a way beneath his ability in my opinion. Tragedies were Bottas not getting a shot at Hamilton, Alo still not getting the car he deserves, Ocon getting taken out by Gasly, and Perez having to retire for mechanical issues. The goats were Grosjean for being a disagreeable cuss to work with and always having an excuse when he makes a mistake, and Stroll for being a whiny Canadian which is the worst kind of Canadian. Vettel gets a pass for just racing too hard. Chaos happens, that's life.
My Weekend Favorites
Two things really caught me this weekend. First was Perez losing his wheel at speed in practice, which was one of the most terrifying motoring things I have ever seen. My daughter's fandom of Perez might be getting to me, but I definitely caught my breath when I saw that wheel go, which is why Perez gets the hero image of this article even though it happened in P2. At least it was practice and not the race, and that stunned look on Perez's face as he examined his broken car reflected my feelings exactly. Wow.
Second, the best moment of serendipity all season was when Lewis and Max were in the green room together before going out to the podium. Seb’s aggravated assault of Bottas was playing on the wall behind them, and when Lewis saw the crash he shook his head and said, “That’s crazy.” Max was watching too, and Lewis’ denunciation of Seb made Max turn around in surprise. He looked at Lewis like “What’s crazy about destroying a bunch of cars on Lap 1? Isn’t that just how this works?” So innocent, like he didn't know the crash was an exceptional part of the race. Like crashing is just one acceptable way of doing business. It was a really good drive from Max, and he’s right to criticize the media for their unfair criticism of him, but the fact that Lewis would so casually talk crashes with Max Verstappen, and that look on Max’s face after Lewis’ comment, made me laugh. Something about Max is still just raw, uncivilized Stig and I really enjoy it. Great moment.
Anyway, there was a lot going on so let me know what I missed in the comments. Join the tribe if you haven’t yet, and I’ll see you in a few short days after Austria. May the colorful friction strips of your life slow you down at least enough so that you can get out of your car before it explodes.