French Grand Prix: The Takeaway
Once again, epic tussles through the field had important repercussions, in what was certainly the best race at Paul Ricard since its return in 2018.
Seconds out, Round Seven. The Formula 1 teams returned to the beautiful south of France and Paul Ricard for the third time since its reappearance in 2018. Both races at the venue with the modern Formula 1 cars were mind-numbingly boring at times and fans were not anticipating anything different in this instance. Overtakes are difficult through the majority of the lap, then arguably too easy on the Mistral straight. With a very slow pitlane and high tyre degradation, the undercut was expected to be powerful and would provide one of few chances to gain places for most of the field.
This was expected to be a track where Mercedes would return to form and the Friday practice sessions certainly supported that, with Valtteri Bottas topping both of them. The Red Bull of Max Verstappen was clearly not far behind, though, and on Saturday he took things to another level by dominating FP3 and taking pole with a scintillating lap. Mercedes swapped their drivers’ chassis which caused a real stir – it seemed this move had compromised Hamilton and in the early sessions his pace was nowhere. Changes before qualifying certainly made a difference for him, though, as he managed a brilliant lap to sit just behind Verstappen and ahead of his teammate.
Verstappen was sloppy into the first corner complex, getting caught out by the tailwind and conceding the lead to Hamilton. From there on, the first stint was fairly uneventful. Bottas bit the bullet and went for the undercut on Verstappen – not only did this not work, Mercedes made another blunder by not covering Verstappen’s pitstop with Hamilton. A rapid outlap from the Dutchman and a less than optimal in-lap by Hamilton meant that Red Bull made up a gap of just over three seconds to retake the lead. The straight-line speed of the Red Bull, with both cars opting for low-downforce setups and sporting new power units for the weekend, meant that the Mercedes duo struggled to overtake on the straights even with DRS. After 15 laps of the front three ringing the necks of the tyres, it was obvious the pace they were setting could not be maintained for the rest of the Grand Prix.
Red Bull had pulled a strategy cracker by pitting 4th-placed Sergio Perez onto the hards nine laps later than the front three. In clear air and pushing at a comfortable pace, Perez could hold onto the one-stop with competitive pace until the end. Verstappen therefore gave up track position to pit for lightly worn mediums, in almost a carbon copy of the Spanish Grand Prix. Mercedes were caught napping a little with this one, with both Hamilton and Bottas being forced into no man’s land and completing the race on extremely worn hard tyres. With lap times two seconds clear of the Mercedes, it seemed Verstappen would pass Hamilton for the lead easily so long as he could clear Bottas. He came upon the backmarkers at the wrong times which punished him a bit through the twisty sections, but once the leaders cleared them with a few laps to go the win never looked in doubt. Verstappen passed Hamilton on the penultimate lap and converted the victory, while Perez brilliantly used his tyre advantage to knock Bottas off the podium.
Max Verstappen took his third victory of the season, and arguably the most significant. Red Bull won three consecutive races as a team for the first time since 2013, when they won their fourth double World Championship.
Verstappen and Perez both produced excellent performances, but it took vastly different approaches from both to achieve it. While Max was almost flat out every single lap of the race, Perez was controlled and initially looked to be off the pace in the first stint. It became apparent this was just intelligent tyre management, though, which helped him push harder when it mattered late in the race. Hamilton was virtually faultless but this time it was Mercedes who let him down. Bottas was virtually the same, but his inferior tyre management to his teammate really shone through and left him vulnerable to Perez late in the race.
The Baku heartbreak didn’t cost Verstappen the championship lead, but the fact that he was able to extend his lead further at a Mercedes stronghold is so significant in the title battle. It remains to be seen whether Red Bull have sacrificed a bit of strength elsewhere in order to convert this victory, but I would argue this is the strongest we’ve seen the team all season. Monaco and Imola were dominant victories and Baku should’ve been too, but for me this is the win that Red Bull will say is their best. Christian Horner said if his team could beat Mercedes in France then they could beat them anywhere – it probably won’t be that simple, but heading to an Austria double header where Red Bull are historically strong should bode well for the immediate future.
As for Mercedes, they may take a while to figure out how they were beaten by Verstappen here. Red Bull stripped downforce off their car for better straight-line speed but didn’t suffer very much at all in the corners, which no doubt will perplex the designers. Toto Wolff suggested his team would be the first to divert attention entirely to 2022 – is this a red herring or a genuine statement that Red Bull could soon be unbeatable? I rather suspect it’s the former, but Mercedes have to pull their finger out if they’re going to keep up with this relentless charge from the Bulls.
After a disappointing Saturday, the McLaren duo of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo bounced back in impressive fashion to take 5th and 6th respectively. They were arguably the kindest car in the entire field on the tyres, managing the graining phase better than the other midfield runners to make some important overtakes. Norris is not just the only driver to score points in every race thus far, but he’s also finished in the top-5 in all but one of the seven Grands Prix. It’s seriously impressive stuff from the Brit who is still only 21 years old, showing wisdom and experience far beyond his years. It was a much stronger weekend for Ricciardo who was within touching distance of his teammate for the first time since he beat him in Spain. He openly admitted he’s struggled with adapting to the McLaren but this weekend was a big step in the right direction.
Daniel Ricciardo's 6th-place finish in France was his best result of the season and represented a significant step forward in his efforts to understand his new car. Teammate Lando Norris achieved yet another top-5 finish.
Another team who achieved points by being kind on tyres was Aston Martin. With the resurgent Sebastian Vettel taking 9th ahead of his teammate Lance Stroll in 10th, the team took another double points finish which seemed unlikely in practice and qualifying. The team were struggling for raw pace in the early sessions, but perhaps this was deliberate as they looked to maximise their race performance. Vettel and Stroll both stretched a set of hard tyres deep into the race and the latter even achieved points after starting on the back row of the grid. Vettel once again showed he’s really starting to come into his own in the AMR21 with a continuation of his strong results at the two street circuits. It’s great seeing Seb happy again, isn’t it?
The two AlphaTauri drivers had polar opposite weekends. Yuki Tsunoda crashed in qualifying for the third time in just seven races, starting from the pitlane and only recovering to 13th. Pierre Gasly, meanwhile, proved the car’s potential by qualifying 6th and coming home an impressive 7th behind the rapid McLarens. I said at the start of the season that the AlphaTauri was arguably good enough to compete for 3rd or 4th in the championship, and the Frenchman’s result proves that. But the team have been susceptible to grave mistakes and, after Gasly’s uncharacteristic early season wobbles, it’s Tsunoda that just isn’t getting up to speed. His incidents through the season so far are not only costly in terms of points, but also financially with the strict cost caps looking difficult to stick to. Alex Albon, Juri Vips and Liam Lawson among others wait in the wings and, with Red Bull being famously volatile when it comes to drivers, I wouldn’t put it past them to ditch Tsunoda if he continues to disappoint. His team’s relationship with Honda could be Tsunoda’s saving grace, but into next year that may be meaningless.
Yuki Tsunoda lost the rear into the first corner on his first attempt in qualifying, resulting in his third session-ending crash in qualifying in just seven races. He eventually started from the pit lane and finished 13th.
Alpine appeared to be having a much stronger weekend, but on the weekend Esteban Ocon signed a new bumper contract he was unable to escape Q2 or score any points. Finishing down in 14th, he was comfortably outperformed by teammate Fernando Alonso who qualified in the top 10 and finished 8th. The quality of the two-time World Champion is definitely starting to shine through and this could be where Ocon struggles in comparison to him. The young Frenchman is extremely talented, though, and there’s nobody better to learn from than Alonso. He was also seen chatting in depth with the legendary Alain Prost in the paddock this week. In the long term, this partnership could be extremely beneficial to Ocon and the Alpine team as a whole, even if they are unable to achieve significant success during Alonso’s current two-year contract.
Ferrari had a pretty miserable weekend after two pretty good weekends at the street circuits. They qualified fairly well with Carlos Sainz in 5th and Charles Leclerc in 8th, but everything completely fell apart in the race. Sainz couldn’t hold onto points and took 11th while Leclerc imploded and finished 16th, even beaten by the Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi. Tyre wear was their biggest downfall, Leclerc even opting for a two-stop strategy after being the first car to pit and struggling extensively on his hard tyres. They lost out massively to McLaren this weekend in the constructors’ championship – now they’ll probably start to rue Leclerc’s Monaco woes and a few mistakes in Baku that led to them dropping back significantly in the race. They’ll be hoping they can return to form at the Austria double header, where they essentially get twice as much for their money if they can find their sweet spot in the Styrian hills.
George Russell managed an impressive 12th for Williams at a venue which didn’t necessarily suit them. Despite an excellent final run was fortunate to escape Q1, just 2/1000ths of a second clear of his teammate in 15th when Mick Schumacher’s crash brought an end to the session before he could complete his fantastic lap. He was the standout at the rear of the field, with the Alfa Romeo duo of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen having fairly uneventful weekends and his teammate heading backwards. The Haas duo of Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin propped up the field in that order, but not without another skirmish between the teammates that Gunther Steiner will certainly be keeping an eye on.
I’ve said a few times that it will be key for the teams to find their feet first time round in Austria, as the double header at the same venue presents a unique opportunity for twice as many points. The main thing to note here is the altitude, which restricts cooling and puts a premium on reliability. Harsh kerbs also mean that small mistakes can be heavily punished with damaged or broken parts. Red Bull are historically strong here so I’d expect them to lead the field, but Mercedes won both races here last year when we had another double header. McLaren also run very strong here and I anticipate they’ll be even stronger with Mercedes power in the back. Look out as well for Aston Martin and possibly AlphaTauri if Tsunoda can get the hang of the layout where he managed a podium in F2 last year. See you there!