With the 2021 Formula 1 season’s first triple header upon us, the French Grand Prix was the opening act that has left us yearning for more.
Known for its “dizzyingly” boring races, Paul Ricard defied all expectations with a wild race. That can be credited to the rainfall the night before the race. That washed away all the rubber the cars put down over the weekend, subsequently relegating all the work the teams did in practice to understand the tyres’ degradation into zilch.
With the two street races of Monaco and Baku, somehow skewing the F1 pecking order, it was good to be coming back to a traditional race track and seeing how the championship fight between Mercedes and Red Bull would resume – especially after their leading drivers’ pointless races in Baku.
Max Verstappen duly delivered pole position with the two top teams hogging the first two rows on the grid setting the scene up to what would be one of 2021’s most exciting races yet.
Here are our five takeaways from the 2021 French Grand Prix.
Mercedes: Redemption has to wait
No one was more relieved than Toto Wolff and his squad to leave the nightmares of Monaco and Baku behind. With Red Bull historically struggling at the Paul Ricard, the reigning champions would have been itching to regain their form after two trying weekends in a row.
Sadly that was not the case as Red Bull seemed to have transformed their car into a formidable beast around the circuit of Le Castellet.
Reminiscent of their blown diffuser days, Red Bull were so confident with their car’s ability to generate downforce from the under-floor, that they used a slimmer rear wing which, coupled with a new Honda power unit bolted to the RB16B, made the Bulls unreachable on the straights. Mercedes, on the other hand, could not sacrifice any downforce out of fear of losing out in the corners and ended up struggling with top speed.
Mercedes’ struggles over the weekend were evident, with second and third on the grid for qualifying feeling like pole. But the gap of over two tenths to pole, in addition to being sandwiched by both Red Bull drivers was sure to make things tough.
On race day, Verstappen handed Lewis Hamilton and his team a lifeline (more on that later) but Mercedes let it slip. They underestimated the undercut effect and calling Hamilton a lap too late at the first round of stops proved to be their downfall.
But one would have thought that they would learn from their mistake when the prospect of going to a two-stopper emerged, something Hamilton was wary of. But yet again, Red Bull reacted quicker and pitted first, confident of their pace and their flying Dutchman. Mercedes had no chance but to keep Hamilton out and hope his tyres last and/or Verstappen’s don’t.
Well, we all know how that turned out to be with Verstappen catching and easily passing Hamilton with less than two laps to go.
Mercedes ended up getting a taste of their own medicine – remember Barcelona??
To add insult to injury, Max also bagged an extra point for the fastest lap with Mercedes hesitating to pit Bottas hoping Perez would be penalized for his pass.
That didn’t work out either. Ouch.
Max Verstappen: That almost ended in tears
Verstappen was going about brilliantly with his business this weekend, sealing pole comfortably on Saturday afternoon and setting himself up for a race victory until that wobble at the first corner. After that it was a matter of how he and his team responded. And they responded in style!
Granted Red Bull had the winning car, but they were supreme in their race operation. You could see how their pit wall was operating with cool heads and extreme confidence. Neither the team nor Verstappen was perturbed by losing the lead on the first lap. They just went on to devise the perfect strategy to win the race, always beating Mercedes to the trigger and leaving them to react.
Verstappen executed the race beautifully. His race engineer came over the radio after he passed Hamilton and said “simply lovely”. That can be said about the whole stint he did after his second stop for mediums.
Verstappen was looking to throw the pains of Baku behind him, and he duly did. His mistake on lap one however should serve as a constant reminder that, when you are fighting the likes of Hamilton and Mercedes for the championship, you cannot deliver anything but perfection.
He got lucky with this one.
Daniel Ricciardo gets racey
Daniel Ricciardo was out-qualified by Lando Norris again in France. But in the race, we saw glimpses of the Honey Badger we all know. Some nice overtakes and consistent pace was good to see from the smiling Aussie.
Although he was ultimately beaten to the finish line by his teammate, Ricciardo was nowhere near as lost as he was in Monaco and it also banished the images of his qualifying crash in Baku.
Honey badgers are tough, tenacious creatures and it seems that Ricciardo is living up to his nickname, slowly getting to know his MCL35M a bit better. We all sure hope that this time it will be a genuine turnaround and not so short-lived as in Spain.
With his team genuinely fighting for “best of the rest” status with Ferrari, Ricciardo’s turn of fortunes along with his teammate’s impressive form would be just what the doctor prescribed for the Woking based outfit as they battle it out with Ferrari for third in the constructors’ standings.
Ferrari: Oh mon dieu
Ferrari knew that going back to a conventional circuit will eradicate the advantage they had on street circuits.
However, in France, they were able to qualify superbly with Carlos Sainz in fifth, out qualifying the out of sorts Charles Leclerc in seventh for a change. That gave McLaren, their closest competitor, the shivers of losing ground to them in the constructors’ championship.
Race day came and both SF21’s were suffering from extreme tyre degradation, and went free-falling down the order finishing eleventh and sixteenth. That’s zero points on the board for the Maranello squad and on a day where McLaren finished fifth and sixth, that definitely hurts.
After their disastrous 2020 campaign, Ferrari were making bold predictions about their 2021 season with their improved car. They targeted third in the constructors, and were putting up a good fight with McLaren up to now.
There is no doubt that they didn’t maximize their outcome from Monaco and Baku where their car was performing well. Furthermore, they announced that they have stopped development on this year’s car with focus shifting entirely for next year.
With no more developments planned for their car, Ferrari should extract the last ounce of performance from their current package if they are to live up to their expectations by securing third place in the constructors’ standings.
In France they did the exact opposite.
Title fight: We are privileged
When was the last time we had such a close and tense title fight?
It’s been a while now. But watching Verstappen and Hamilton with Red Bull and Mercedes behind them slugging it out is a privilege for F1 fans beyond any other.
You cannot but nostalgically remember the titanic fights of Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher in the late 90’s and the great German’s fights later on with then young gun Fernando Alonso.
Lately F1 has been going through cycles of dominance like Red Bull between 2010 and 2013, with Mercedes’ dominance yet to be broken since the start of the turbo-hybrid era in 2014.
This makes this F1 season that much more exciting as Mercedes face a serious challenge of being removed from their pedestal and with one third of the season only behind us, more epic battles between this year’s contenders are surely in the pipeline.
After such a thrilling race, it’s great we only have to wait a few days until the competition restarts. Forward and march to Austria!