The French Grand Prix delivered yet another thriller in this too-close-to-call championship fight, with Max Verstappen sensationally stripping Lewis Hamilton of the lead on the penultimate lap in a serious statement of title intent.
It was a blissful change of pace for Circuit Paul Ricard, which in its previous two races has served up nothing but soporific processions, with Hamilton having led every lap but one before this weekend’s race.
Indeed in that statistic lies the significant of Red Bull Racing’s victory, its third in a row for the year. France was considered Hamilton and Mercedes territory, and after the Black Arrows struggled on at the previous two rounds on street tracks, this was supposed to be a return to regular transmission.
Yes, Mercedes was the faster car on Sunday, even if only by a bit. And yes, the team made some strategic errors that left Hamilton with an impossible defence in the final laps of the race.
But Red Bull Racing was still comfortably close enough to exert pressure and reap the rewards, and that’s a very promising sign for the team now 37 points ahead in the constructors standings and with the driver 12 points ahead in the individual stakes.
Circuit Paul Ricard is an excellent test track, comprising an array of corner speeds and a series of long straights, but it has in its modern F1 lifetime proved a poor racing circuit for exactly these reasons, much as Barcelona-Catalunya has been.
Compounding its problems is that its dark tarmac absorbs too well the typical warmth of southern France at this time of year. On Friday and Saturday circuit temperatures were approaching 50°C, causing severe thermal degradation, particularly on the soft compound, which proved just about useless beyond a single lap.
The tyres were further troubled by new rules to control tyre pressures in the aftermath of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Findings of the inquest into the tyre failures of Max Verstappen and Lance Stroll suggested they had been running at lower pressures than Pirelli expected based on its cold pressure stipulations and resultantly raised the minimum required pressure for France, reducing available grip.
The combination of all those factors meant neither Mercedes nor Red Bull Racing was completely comfortable on Friday. Indeed Hamilton suggested after qualifying that his side of the garage had made several changes from the beginning of practice right up to the start of Q1.
In the end Red Bull Racing found pace through a configuration of lower downforce, which meant most of its lap time was made down the straight with the benefit of a fresh Honda power unit. The Mercedes could run as skinny a rear wing and get its tyres working, so it was lumbered with slower straight-line speed as its best performance compromise.
Teams were thrown a further curve ball on Sunday morning when rain lashed the circuit. Though the warm weather and support categories ensured the track was dry by the time of the grand prix, the rubber laid down on the previous two days had been washed away, which caused worse degradation than anticipated and put the race into two-stop territory.
It meant predicting the race outcome was far from straightforward.
THE RACE-DEFINING MOVE
Verstappen led Hamilton away from the front row, but after just one turn the Briton had got through to the lead after the Dutchman misjudged his entry to the first apex, carrying too much speed and running wide.
Over the duration of the first stint it was clear Mercedes had the faster car. Hamilton was able to build an advantage while Bottas from third put Verstappen under pressure.
But Bottas had problems. A flat spot forced his hand strategically, requiring him to change tyres earlier than anticipated, on lap 17, and make the most of what was still expected to be a one-stop race.
Verstappen had no choice but to follow Bottas in, covering him comfortably enough to maintain net second despite losing 1.2 seconds to the undercut.
But somewhere during this window Mercedes’s eye fell off the main game. Hamilton wasn’t brought in on the same lap but left out to verify whether Verstappen would indeed pit, and it wasn’t until lap 19 Mercedes brought him in.
The reasoning was innocent enough. The pit window had opened earlier than was ideal on a day the track was causing more trouble for the tyres than anticipated, and every lap completed on the used mediums would be one less to manage to the end of the race.
More important still was that Hamilton’s lead at the end of lap 17 was 3.1 seconds. It should have been enough to cover Verstappen on the in-lap anyway.
But so sizzling was Verstappen’s in lap, so effective was his entry and exit from pit lane and so rapid was his out lap that the when Hamilton stopped and rejoined he found himself demoted to net second.
Post race Mercedes wasn’t clear how it so dramatically underestimated the power of the undercut — even on Hamilton’s in lap it didn’t anticipate being jumped. But somewhere in the space of those two laps Verstappen beat Mercedes’s strategy machine to put one hand on the winners trophy.
THE KNOCKOUT SECOND BLOW
But the coup de grace came later in the race. Only 10 laps into the breathless second stint, with Hamilton harrying Verstappen for the lead but ultimately unable to pass for his lack of straight-line speed Mercedes was running more wing than Red Bull Racing — it dawned on both teams that the window for a second stop could be opening.
All three contending drivers had noted the more severe than expected degradation, Bottas earliest of all, noting early in his second stint that the hard wasn’t holding up nearly as well as it had been anticipated.
The moment was ripe for someone to make a second stop, take the time penalty and execute a rapid final stint, and there was one good reason it was Verstappen who felt freest to pull the trigger on lap 32 to begin the chase: Sergio Perez.
Perez had been running a different strategy to the rest of the top three. Having been marginally off the pace early in the race and not within undercut range, Red Bull Racing left him on what should have been the prime strategy: running to lap 24 before switching to the hard tyre. His pace after a difficult first 10 laps was solid, and when the prospect of a second stop arose he was comfortably in the pit window of the top three.
Of course Bottas was as well, but having been the first to stop and now vociferously struggling with his hard tyres, he was nowhere near the bulwark Perez would be.
If Hamilton had been the driver to stop, he would have not only been gambling on extracting race-winning pace from his tyres but also that he could get through Perez in no more than two laps — a tall order.
Verstappen, on the other hand, would be waved past Perez and had the easier prospect of passing Bottas on his badly worn rubber, which ultimately he did in only a lap — and therefore caught and passed Hamilton with a lap to spare, completing an 18-second pursuit in 19 laps.
THE SECOND DRIVERS
The second drivers were therefore key to the outcome of the race, even if Mercedes’s lack of straight-line speed would’ve made it difficult for Hamilton to regain the lead in either scenario, but were left to fight for just the final place on the podium.
For Perez third was just reward given he had been lacking pace early in the race, but Bottas, who was thereabouts all weekend, was furious to feel hard done by, having been an early proponent of the two-stop strategy.
But Mercedes had to weigh up giving Bottas a strategy potentially faster than Hamilton’s — and it’s worth nothing Verstappen’s two-stop strategy got him ahead of Hamilton by only three seconds at the flag, so it was right to think it marginal — and using him as a defence against the potential of Verstappen making a second stop, as he ultimately did.
But it misjudged how effective Bottas could be with his tyres — indeed Bottas said he could see the Pirelli canvas peeking through what was left of the tread late in the race. He barely held up Verstappen at all, when even one extra lap fending off the Dutchman might have allowed Hamilton to hold onto the lead.
Worse still was that Perez was similarly unencumbered on his way through to third, highlighting how compromising Bottas’s early stop had been compared to what should’ve been the standard strategy.
Adding salt to the wounds was that Mercedes was adamant Perez had passed Bottas off the track, and when the stewards opened an investigation into the move Bottas was left out rather than brought in for another set of tyres to take the point for fastest lap. Unfortunately for him, the stewards found Perez had completed the move before running wide, and therefore no action was taken.
Bottas, anyway, had dropped to more than five seconds behind, so damaged were his tyres, so he wouldn’t have been the beneficiary of e penalty.
BEST OF THE REST: THE UNDERCUT WORKS UNTIL IT DOESN’T
The battle in the midfield similarly hinged on the effectiveness of the early undercut compared to the benefits of running the more balanced strategy of a later stop.
On the freshly washed track with its high degradation the undercut was proving very powerful, and it was Charles Leclerc, struggling all weekend with his tyres and even more so in the race, who proved that first with a stop on lap 14, hoping the hard tyre would be more stable than the mediums.
He got past Pierre Gasly ahead of him — Daniel Ricciardo, Gasly and Fernando Alonso stopped on subsequent laps and emerged behind in that order — but his gain was short lived. The SF21’s appetite for tyres was insatiable, and he sunk down the order so rapidly that he finished a disastrous lapped 16th with an emergency second stop.
His teammate, Carlos Sainz, fared little better. He held fifth early in the race but as undercut by Ricciardo, the two stopping on laps 17 and 16 respectively. But Sainz couldn’t fight back, and he too sunk out of the points.
Ricciardo was looking good to take fifth. He’d been ninth after the first lap ahead of slow-starting teammate Lando Norris, and the two battled up to seventh before Ricciardo’s stop.
But the team left Norris out on an alternative strategy, instructing him to do the opposite of Gasly, who topped immediately after Ricciardo. It put Norris on what was the better race plan — a more balanced one-stop strategy that had him switch from medium to hard on lap 24, just as he radioed that his rubber was expiring.
The Briton dropped to 16th, but with tyres that could be pushed the distance against a midfield of drivers managing their pace to ensure they made it to the flag he made quick work of his rivals until he was running back behind Ricciardo, who let him past for net fifth.
Norris finished 11 seconds ahead of his teammate, demonstrating how compromising the early stop was.
ASTON MARTIN GOES LONG, SCORES
Aston Martin teammates Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll recovered superbly from 12th and 19th on the grid to score the final points of the race by starting on the hard tyre when tanks were full and running til laps 37 and 34 respectively before switching to mediums.
Running fifth and sixth before their stops and dropping out of the points afterwards, both had the tyre life to make it back into the top 10, Vettel’s only lament that an off-track excursion early in the race meant he didn’t have time to close and pass Fernando Alonso for eighth.
It was a modest but important points return for the team, albeit assisted by the underperforming Ferrari cars.
THE WINNER’S STRATEGY
Max Verstappen: medium (used) to lap 18, hard (new) to lap 32, medium (used) to lap 53.