After a fortnight-long break where team politics had taken center-stage in light of the FIA’s potential 2023 rule changes, the action finally resumed in France at the Paul Ricard Circuit this weekend for the last doubleheader before Formula 1 goes on a summer break. An engrossing race unfolded with plenty of talking points, some thrills and spills, and a few recurring plot lines that have kept showing up this season.
So let’s once again pick the bones from the weekend and identify the biggest winners and losers from the French Grand Prix-
It had seemed to be another weekend where Max’s Red Bull would fall just short of the Ferrari. The Scuderia seemed, by far, the most competitive car all weekend. Max was fortunate to be on the front row of the grid, owing to Sainz starting from the back because of having added new parts to his engine beyond the stipulated allocation for the season. And yet in the race, he kept the pressure on Leclerc throughout his first stint, hovering in the Ferrari’s DRS zone all the way, only just backing off towards the end to cool off his tyres from the dirty air behind the Ferrari.
This ensured that the undercut was well and truly on when he went in to pit for his fresh hard tyres. This put all the pressure on Leclerc who pushed hard on his graining medium tyres to reduce the impact of the undercut- too hard as it transpired, as he ended up spinning out of control and into the barriers in agonising fashion. Max Verstappen managed the race thereafter from the front in an almost Zen-like state— hardly ever concerned about the happenings behind him. He now enjoys a luxurious 63-point lead over his closest championship rival and must be well aware that he can win his 2nd WDC in a row at a canter, without having to take any of the risks he had to in the previous season.
Mercedes enjoyed their first double podium of the season in what was their most convincing performance with the W13 car so far. Both Mercedes got the better of Sergio Perez’s Red Bull at different ends of the race and stayed ahead, which will give the team plenty of confidence going forward.
Hamilton got off to a better start from P4 and was ahead of Perez before the first corner of the race, but more importantly, never looked like getting eaten up by the Red Bull thereafter. Meanwhile Russell, after an ill-advised lunge on Perez that might have seen both cars retire had Perez not taken evasive action, then caught the Mexican napping at the Virtual Safety Car restart to get into the podium places, before staving off a potential fightback in the dying embers of the race. He thus sealed an impressive result for the silver arrows.
Mercedes are now a mere 44 points behind Ferrari, which is a trifle, considering their much publicised woes all through this season.
Fernando Alonso and Alpine
The midfield battle this season is being dominated by Alpine and McLaren and it is arguably the one to watch out for, as the top of the constructors is being dominated by Red Bull. In their home race, Alpine looked to be potentially under threat from McLaren after the British team had brought a significant upgrade package to the French Grand Prix. Lando Norris reasserted the same when he managed to get between the Mercedes in qualifying to start the race at P5.
But Alonso in P7 enjoyed a blistering start getting ahead of Russell as well as Norris to slot in at P4 in the early phase of the race. Thereafter, once Russell had moved on up the field, Alonso dictated the pace of the McLarens behind him humorously speaking on team radio that the invitation was open for the McLarens to attack him and see how it worked out for them. As things panned out, this allowed the sister Alpine driven by Esteban Ocon to catch up with the McLarens from behind, and Ocon managed to best Ricciardo’s McLaren in the process. The Alpines came home a respectable 6th and 8th and now stand 4 points ahead of McLaren in the Constructors Standings.
Ferrari and Leclerc
Just when one would have thought that Ferrari’s endless stream of gaffes and misfortunes had finally dried out, they promptly came up and wrote a new chapter in their book of misadventures this weekend. It started out with what currently looks like a driver error— when Leclerc, for the 3rd time this season, retired from a race that he was leading. Fighting the undercut from Max Verstappen who had just pitted and was charging up the field having overtaken Lando Norris and found some clean air, Leclerc pushed, and pushed a little too hard—losing his rear and spinning his way into the barriers ending his race in painful circumstances, and effectively his shot at a debut World Drivers Championship, as Verstappen inherited the lead and waltzed away to claim another win.
Elsewhere, Carlos Sainz was starting at the back due to penalties incurred. He was enjoying a productive first stint gobbling away at the midfield to return towards the sharp end of the pack. But Leclerc’s misfortune hurt Sainz’s race acutely too. He, on the hard tyres, was forced to pit earlier than he’d have liked and faced the prospect of a long stint on the mediums- a risk, and also got slapped with a 5-second time penalty for unsafe release after pitting for good measure.
What followed was another comedy of errors, as the Ferrari strategists were tying themselves in hoops, figuring out the viabilities of plan E, and plan D on their notebooks, all the while seemingly forgetting that there was a race going on in real time! All the confusion and indecision culminated in an ill-timed radio call for Sainz to pit just as he had passed the pit-lane entry and was completing a breathtaking overtake on Perez. In the end, Sainz did pit- too late for him to cover the ground he had lost. He did finish 5th and got the fastest lap which is a solid result considering he started at the back, but he could have easily been on the podium on Sunday.
After 2 races where the American team had enjoyed double points finishes, there was talk if they could achieve 3 double points finishes in a row for the first time in the team’s history. Magnussen was starting from the back anyway, due to an engine penalty (although he made it to Q3 on Saturday), while Mick Schumacher had failed to get out of Q3 his final flying lap which had placed him comfortably into Q2 was deleted for breaking track limits.
The team, starting at the back of the grid, zeroed in on an aggressive 2-stop strategy on race-day to find a way into the points. But after they had made their early pitstop, their strategy unravelled when Leclerc’s crash brought out the safety car, thus giving all the cars they were hoping to chase down the benefit of a free pit stop. As soon as that had happened, any hopes of a record first hat-trick of double points finishes had all but evaporated and it was a matter of getting the cars home. The Haas team will have better days; this weekend was one where pretty much everything went against them.
Perez’s heroics in Monaco seem a distant memory now. He has endured a tough run of races since then, and in many ways, the French Grand Prix was the most damning yet.
Perez had qualified a respectable P3 for Sunday, but when the lights went out, he was slow to get off the mark and Hamilton made him pay by passing him before the first corner. Of course, the expectation would have been for Perez to settle in and fight the Mercedes, probably overtaking it with minimum fuss. But after some initial promise, the Hamilton vs Perez fight proved a non-story as Perez, in the faster car simply couldn’t keep up with Hamilton. He slowly drifted out of DRS range and seemed to get closer to Russell behind him instead. In the latter stages of the race when on the hards, Perez once again seemed to lack the pace that Verstappen was eking out of the Red Bull and was badly falling short of challenging Hamilton ahead of him. Instead, he once again had to deal with the familiar sight of Russell in his rearview mirrors. When a Virtual Safety Car was declared in the latter stages of the race, Perez was then once again found napping when the period ended, and allowed Russell a cheap overtake, thus losing out on a sure-shot podium.
Next up, is the Hungarian Grand Prix! The race weekend starts with Friday Practice on 29th July, followed by Qualifying at 7:30 p.m. on 30th July and the race at 6:30 pm on the 31st.