The French Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features freelance motorsport journalist Matt Clayton.
Lewis Hamilton comfortably controlled the French Grand Prix from the cockpit of his class-leading Mercedes W10 in a soporific afternoon in scenic southern France.
The race was largely void of competitive and strategic tension after the first lap thanks to significant field spread given the technical nature of the circuit and high track temperatures requiring careful tyre management.
Warm days in the south of France is a delightful way to spend a summer holiday, but for Pirelli’s tyres the weather represented a severe challenge, with the high track temperatures turning the softs compound into an unusable round of goo.
Adding further conditions to strategic thinking was the new pit lane entrance at Circuit Paul Ricard, which was made substantially longer after drivers complained the previous entrance was unsafe. It upped the time required to make a pit stop, pushing teams firmly towards single-stop strategies.
A single switch from medium to hard or vice versa was the order of the day for all bar those who were mandated to start on the soft after using it to qualify for the top-10 shootout in Q2 — namely Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi, whose races suffered as a result.
Combined with high wear even on the two harder compounds, all this together meant the French Grand Prix was one of tyre management and lacked almost completely in aggression.
The race-winning move
Lewis Hamilton’s clean getaway from Valtteri Bottas sealed the deal, with the Finn never quite on his teammate’s pace. Hamilton led every lap, his performance so strong that he managed to keep the lead even after his pit stop, albeit after all bar Sebastian Vettel among the frontrunners had taken their sole tyre changes.
Starting tyre dictates strategy
The medium tyre, by virtue of being used by eight of the top 10 qualifiers, was the default race start tyre, but those with free choice who opted for the hard compound were paid dividends.
Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg were particular beneficiaries, starting 12th and 13th and ending the race eighth and ninth — seventh and eighth after post-race penalties — by allowing the durable compound to take the brunt of the warm weather on heavy fuel while others were engaged in a greater level of management on the mediums.
The pair was up to sixth and seventh before their stops on laps 31 and 34 respectively, dropping to 10th and 11th. They made up a place each when the long-running Lance Stroll made his stop onto mediums on lap 39 — the Canadian gained four places in the race with the same strategy — and then another by passing Lando Norris on the final lap. They were eventually classified seventh and eighth after Ricciardo’s penalty.
The best of the rest’s best of the rest
McLaren was a cut above the midfield in France, qualifying best of the rest and finishing there with Carlos Sainz, who took the chequered flag sixth. Lando Norris would’ve back him up in seventh were it not for a hydraulic problem late in the race that affected his gearbox, differential and power steering, dropping him to 10th — ninth after Daniel Ricciardo copped a 10-second penalty for his series of off-the-track overtakes.
Notable was the absence of Pierre Gasly in this battle despite being in a car quick enough for fourth in the hands of Max Verstappen.
The Frenchman jumper Ricciardo for eighth on the first lap but was unable to make an impression on either McLaren before the Australian attempted the undercut on lap 16. Red Bull Racing brought Gasly in on the following lap, and a pit stop that was 1.4 seconds quicker — 2.1 second compared to Renault’s 3.5 — ensured he stayed ahead exiting the pit lane.
Ricciardo, however, with an extra lap of heat in his tyres, made short work of Gasly, passing him on the following tour, and the Red Bull Racing driver was left behind such that Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg were able to slot into the space between him and the Renault after their stops later in the race.
Teams lobby for tyre changes
This isn’t strictly strategy pertaining to the French Grand Prix, but there was a certain irony in the fact a number of teams are lobbying for Pirelli to revert to the 2018 construction of their tyres in an attempt to rein in Mercedes after another dominant weekend.
For one, the race’s lack of action as largely down to the fact significant tyre management was required of the sort that was common late last year, for which Pirelli was criticised.
Further, the chief difference between the tyres of 2018 and 2019 is tread thickness, with this season’s rubber made thinner in an effort to reduce overheating and therefore the risk of blistering. The French Grand Prix nonetheless featured some blistering, notably on the hard tyre, which contributed to the required level of management — had the 2018 rubber been in use, it would have been substantially worse, slowing the race pace considerably.
The winner’s strategy
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 24, hard (new) to the flag.