Max Verstappen snatched pole from Lewis Hamilton for the French Grand Prix, and regardless of its effect on this weekend’s race, it’s an important marker in the championship fight.
This is is just the second pole of Verstappen’s season, a sign the Dutchman and Red Bull Racing are finally getting on top of their Saturday imperfections, but it also comes at a circuit around which he’s never started higher than fourth.
Indeed Circuit Paul Ricard is regarded as a Mercedes circuit through and through. Lewis Hamilton has led all but one lap of the modern race’s runnings in 2018 and 2019, and the higher speed bends and warm temperatures, recalling similar challenges to that of the Spanish Grand Prix, should have presented the W12 an easy goal.
And yet Red Bull Racing has comfortably had Mercedes’s measure just about all weekend and certainly since the end of FP2. Hamilton even sounded pleased post qualifying to have finished within 0.3 seconds of the leader.
Mercedes certainly still seems out of sorts — perhaps its early-season purple patch will come to be regarded as a blip after its difficult preseason rather than genuine improvement — but the RB16B has also clearly reached another level. The team seems to make confident and substantial steps forward every Friday night, underlining a strong understanding of the car.
Compare that to Mercedes, where Hamilton admitted his team had been making change after change from FP1 through to the start of qualifying only to find itself with a set-up close to the one with which it started the weekend.
The scale of those changes means it’s difficult to predict with certaintly how Mercedes will perform on Sunday, even if Hamilton seemed content with the direction the car has taken — but we can say for sure that Red Bull Racing starts the French Grand Prix very comfortable in the box seat.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
|15||Mick SCHUMACHER||No time|
|19||Lance STROLL||No time|
|20||Yuki TSUNODA||No time|
Distance: 5.842 kilometres
Lap record: 1:32.740 (Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, 2019)
Track record: 1:28.319 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2019)
Lateral load: high
Tyre stress: high
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 50 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 415.5 metres
Pit lane time loss: 20.5 seconds
Fuel consumption: Low
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.5 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.6 seconds
The strategy outlook for the French Grand Prix is bland, to be diplomatic. High track temperatures and a sufficiently demanding track and surface mean the only viable way through this race is not to use the soft tyres and to make just one stop, either medium to hard or vice versa.
But there’s reason to think this might not just be a Verstappen cakewalk, and that’s the time sheet from second practice, which suggested Mercedes was the better car over a stint on the medium compound, on which the entire top 10 will start the race.
Neither team conducted race simulation runs on the hard compound.
The default strategy, as will be the case for the rest of the top 10, will be to take the medium tyre to somewhere between laps 18 and 25, just before halfway.
But a car that can hold its medium tyres better might be a chance at overcutting a rival. The hard compound will need to be brought in relatively gently to ensure blistering doesn’t become a problem in the long second stint lest the rubber chews itself up and demand a costly second stop.
But once up to temperature the hard is a consistent race compound, so any more than a lap or two difference will swing momentum back to the first-stopping car, particularly if late in the first stint.
With all four frontrunners starting in the top four on the grid and with pace management expected to be a key feature of this race, the second drivers will play a role in strategy here. Sergio Perez was superb in keeping his tyres alive in Azerbaijan in the first stint, and if Verstappen loses out to Hamilton at the start or in the stops, Perez could be deployed to either attempt an overcut or simply act as a rolling roadblock to create an overtaking opportunity if required.
Outside the top 10 the only viable alternative strategy is to start on the hard tyre, let the durable compound take the brunt of the heat and the full fuel tanks, and end the race on the speedier medium compound. This could be especially useful as a data-gathering exercise for Esteban Ocon and Yuki Tsunoda, who have teammates starting on mediums in the top 10, by advising on the ideal crossover point for a stop.
Getting the crossover right for the hard–medium strategy will be crucial to maximising the result — in 2019 Lance Stroll was frustrated to finish outside the points for switching too late and having excess rubber left on his mediums that could otherwise have been deployed on a climb up the order.
All that said, rain in the race will completely change the strategic picture. A wet track will dry quickly in the warm ambient temperature, and the count of laps remaining will dictate which slick compound is taken through to the end of the race.