Strategy decides the race! F1 2021 Season Review: France
Let's take a look back at the action in today's French Grand Prix.
The French Grand Prix is usually a race that Formula One fans dread as it approaches on the calendar as a result of the difficult overtaking and little action we usually see. However, this changed this weekend when Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas were battling it out within 2 seconds of each other for a good portion of the race! We are, however, getting ahead of ourselves. Let's rewind back to yesterday's qualifying session to see where the drivers lined up on the grid.
The start of Q1 sees Alpha Tauri rookie, Yuki Tsunoda, bring out the red flag for the third time this year in qualifying after spinning and locking up the gearbox and the Turn 1 and 2 complex. This meant the young, Japanese driver was unable to set a lap and was forced to start from the back of the grid on Sunday. Another shock elimination from Q1 was Lance Stroll, who didn't set a flying lap at the start of the session and was under pressure to complete a lap at the very end of the session. Unfortunately for him, the red flag came out with just seconds to go in Q1 after Mick Schumacher spun at Turn 9 and put his Haas in the wall, meaning Stroll was unable to set a time and would start alongside Tsunoda in 19th.
Mazepin would start ahead of the pair in 18th, with Kimi Raikkonen along side him in 17th. Nicolas Latifi missed out on a spot in Q2 by just two-thousandths of a second; while Schumacher was put through to the second round of qualifying as a result of bringing the red flag out. George Russell and Antonio Giovinazzi put in good performances to make it through to the second qualifying stage.
Q2 was a somewhat standard session, with Sebastian Vettel's elimination being the talking point after two brilliant races for Aston Martin at Monaco and Azerbaijan. Mick Schumacher would finish the session in 15th as the damage to his car would prevent him from setting a lap, while George Russell put his Williams in 14th place. Giovinazzi did a good job to out-qualify the Briton in 13th place, and Vettel would start ahead of the Italian in 12th. Esteban Ocon would be the closest driver to Q3 in 11th place; putting him in the best position with free tyre choice for his home race.
Q3 saw Max Verstappen take his fifth ever pole position by a quarter of a second to championship rival, Lewis Hamilton, in second place. The Red Bull was very quick in the final sector all weekend, as well as having a lot more straight-line speed. Hamilton set the fastest first sector time, but was unable to match the charging Red Bull throughout the rest of the lap, though was able to start alongside the Dutchman on the front row.
Valtteri Bottas would start behind Hamilton in third place, ahead of Sergio Perez in fourth, Carlos Sainz in fifth and Pierre Gasly in an impressive sixth place. Charles Leclerc struggled with the balance of his Ferrari and was only able to put his car in seventh, ahead of Norris in eighth, Alonso in ninth and Daniel Ricciardo rounding out the top ten.
Now that we are all caught up with qualifying, let's move on to the race.
As the five red lights went out to commence the French Grand Prix, both Verstappen and Hamilton got equal starts, with the former retaining his lead in the braking zone for Turn 1. Hamilton tucked behind Verstappen, who went deep into the corner after a kick of oversteer. Hamilton then took the lead at Turn 2, and started to build a healthy 1.4-second gap by the end of lap one.
On lap 2, Sebastian Vettel made an excellent overtake on Esteban Ocon for 11th place, braking very late, locking his tyres, but going around the outside of the Frenchman at the Turn 8 chicane. Fast-forward to lap 11 and the other Alpine of Fernando Alonso started to struggle with his tyres, resulting in him being passed by Ricciardo at the Turn 8 chicane and Norris in a brave move at Turn 12 on lap 11. Vettel would pass Alonso on lap 13.
On lap 15, Ferrari opt for a bold strategy and pit Leclerc on to the Hard tyre, dropping him to the back of the pack. This decision ultimately failed and Leclerc's tyres fell off the cliff later in the race, resulting in him losing a lot of places and not finishing in the points. It was also a bad race for Carlos Sainz, who lost a lot of places and finished the race in 11th - a race to forget for the Scuderia.
On lap 18, Bottas became the first front runner to pit onto the Hard tyre, prompting Verstappen to pit a lap later in response. Bottas was urged to go as fast as possible on the out-lap to try and undercut Verstappen, but was unable to do so. Hamilton then pits at the end of lap 19 to respond to Verstappen, but actually loses out when the Red Bull driver sets the fastest middle and final sector, demoting him back to (provisional) second place. Perez stayed out and went long on his original set of tyres to try and make the one-stop work safely.
On lap 21, the top three are separated by just a second-and-a-half, and Hamilton is desperately trying to get close enough to Verstappen to make a move. Even with a gap of 0.6 seconds, the straight-line speed of the Red Bull was too much, and Hamilton couldn't catch up. All three drivers were destroying their tyres in an attempt to defend or attack; with Hamilton and Bottas sometimes backing off to cool their tyres down.
It seemed likely that Hamilton would have tried the tactic he used at Hungary in 2019 and Spain this year where he pits before Verstappen, leaving Red Bull to decide whether they should stay out or be overtaken with the undercut. Red Bull decided to eliminate this possibility and served Mercedes their own medicine by stopping Verstappen on lap 32 for a set of Medium tyres.
Both Mercedes drivers made it clear that it was a two-stop strategy and that they wanted to pit, but Mercedes opted to keep both Mercedes out for the remaining 21 laps. Verstappen started lapping incredibly quickly; catching up to and overtaking Bottas on lap 44. Bottas tried to make his car as wide as possible in order to help Hamilton pull away, but the Finn went deep into the Turn 8 chicane as a result of his completely 'dead' tyres and Verstappen didn't need a second invitation.
Moving further down-field, Lando Norris was on a mission after he switched to the Hard tyres in his pitstop. The Briton overtook Gasly, Leclerc, Sainz and Ricciardo to finish in a strong fifth position for McLaren. Ricciardo, who was a lot more comfortable in his McLaren this weekend, didn't have the tyres to compete with Norris, and decided to settle for sixth place - a result the Australian is very happy with.
By lap 44, Verstappen only has nine remaining laps to close a five second lead and overtake Hamilton for the victory of the race. Hamilton started to push on the tyres that he had saved, and consistently stayed at the 4.5-second gap for a couple of laps as Verstappen started to struggle. With two laps to go, Verstappen finally got within DRS range and overtook Hamilton, but for quite a while it seemed that Hamilton would win the race. 1 straight-forward lap later and Max Verstappen crosses the line to take a third consecutive victory and extend his championship lead to 12 points. Take a look at the final finishing order below:
Overall, I would rate the 2021 French Grand Prix an 8 out of 10. There was a lot of strategy involved in this race, and it wasn't clear until the penultimate lap who would take the victory! It would have been interesting if a safety car was deployed, though, to see how the strategy may have changed...
What did you think of the French Grand Prix? Be sure to let us know in the comments below.
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