Red Bull Racing title favourite after French thriller

Red Bull Racing breached Mercedes’s French Grand Prix fortress against the odds, breaking the title fight wide open.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

Spirits were high inside Red Bull Racing on Saturday night at the French Grand Prix. Max Verstappen had taken an assured pole ahead of Lewis Hamilton on a track Mercedes normally dominates, and suddenly the Dutchman was on the cusp of stretching his championship lead.

Red Bull Racing had won two races in a row, but Monaco and Azerbaijan are peculiar street tract. The Circuit Paul Ricard, a more traditional all-round test of car performance, is an entirely different challenge, and one Mercedes has historically dominated.

In the two races at this track since it returned to the calendar in 2018 Hamilton has led all but one lap, taking pole and victory in both.

So when Verstappen took pole, having held a handy pace margin over Hamilton all Saturday, Christian Horner knew his team was on the cusp of an important result in the title fight.

“This circuit, it’s been such a stronghold for Mercedes over the recent years,” he told British television. “If we can beat them here, then really we can beat them anywhere.”

The first half of the race comprised two key errors, one from each side. Verstappen’s getaway from pole was flawless, but he carried too much speed into the first turn and overshot on exit, allowing Hamilton to cruise into the lead.

With overtaking difficult at Paul Ricard, that could have been the end of his victory hopes.

But Mercedes was about to make a crucial mistake of its own. Having brought Valtteri Bottas in for an early first pit stop, it neglected to bring in Hamilton on the following lap. Verstappen came in instead, and with a rapid lap to the pits, a fast stop and a blistering first lap on new tyres he made up enough time to take the lead from Hamilton when the Briton eventually changed tyres one lap later.

Hamilton had what Mercedes thought should have been a safe margin to cover Verstappen, but its modelling was clearly mistaken. Perhaps it had been making assumptions based on Friday’s more gentle tyre degradation or taken into account the RB16B’s problems getting the most from its tyres in previous rounds — whatever the case, Verstappen had taken the race into his hands and beaten the Mercedes machine.

But there was a final twist in the race. Hamilton’s Mercedes had a small but undoubted pace advantage, and the Briton harried Verstappen for the lead, but as the title-contending duo battled it out it became clear their tyres weren’t going to make the distance.

Red Bull Racing again seized their moment, stopping Verstappen with no notice on lap 32. Again his out lap was rapid, and if Hamilton responded he would have only come out behind the Dutchman in a self-defeating move.

Verstappen had 20 laps to make up 18 seconds on Hamilton, but he was more than fast enough on new tyres. He was waved past teammate Sergio Perez, sliced past a hapless Bottas and closed to within a second of Hamilton on the penultimate lap.

He only needed one shot, and with a lap to spare Verstappen was back in the lead to seal a thrilling win.

But while victory was sweet and the newfound 12-point title lead is sweeter, sweetest of all is what felling Mercedes at its fortress circuit means for Red Bull Racing’s championship ambitions.

“It’s very promising,” he said. “It just shows you that the two teams are super close together.

“It’s still a very long season so we just have to keep pushing but I think it’s good for Formula 1 at the end.”

But with the championship continuing with two back-to-back races at Austria’s Red Bull Ring, where Verstappen and his team are normally strong, the Dutchman has a real chance to stamp his authority on the championship race.