Formula 1 GP at Paul Ricard: A Welcomed Surprise
Will Usherwood-Bliss details the unexpectedly thrilling Grand Prix at Paul Ricard
It’s fair to say that the French GP at Circuit Paul Ricard is rarely at the top of every F1 fan’s must-watch-races. The last time F1 was brought to France was in 2019, which went down as one of the dullest races in the turbo-hybrid era: Lewis Hamilton won the race by leading all 53 laps, the top four on the starting grid all finished in the same place, and there was no real track action until the final couple of laps in the midfield. The race was so un-race-like that even race winner Hamilton called out the FIA afterwards on allowing F1 to become that boring to watch.
This, I am pleased to report, was not repeated last Sunday at Paul Ricard, where instead of a ceremonial parade of F1 cars, we were treated to overtakes, race day surprises, and a tactical battle between Mercedes and Red Bull throughout. What’s more, this excitement came from one of only ten races in F1’s total 1042 Grand Prix where there were no DNFs, a statistic I didn’t even realise existed until after the race!
Albeit Max Verstappen took pole position on Saturday and later went on to win the race, it was not without its fair share of drama. On the first corner of the race, Verstappen was overtaken by Hamilton after going wide, a move which gave Mercedes a considerable advantage given the difficulty of overtaking in the past at Paul Ricard. However, what followed was a masterclass in strategy from Red Bull. On lap 19, Verstappen went in to pit for a set of hards in order to undercut Hamilton; Mercedes responded by pitting on lap 20, and sure enough, Verstappen overtook Hamilton by a whisker as the latter left the pits.
As the race went on, the question remained whether it would be a two-stop race or a one-stop, with multiple drivers such as Max and Lewis complaining about tyre wear (although, when doesn’t Lewis complain about tyres?). As it was, Red Bull blinked; having already pitted Perez, Verstappen came in for a set of mediums on lap 32 to come out behind his teammate. After team orders to let Max past as he was on faster tyres, Checo courteously let the Dutchman past before saying to his mechanic, “Let’s get them”. Game on.
Mercedes were sitting ducks at this point, not being able to pit without coming out behind the charging Bulls and not having enough left in the tyres to outrace them either. Red Bull had done to Mercedes precisely what they did to them in Spain 2021 and Hungary 2019 by turning a one-stop race into a two stopper. In the end, Verstappen passed both the Mercs to finish in first. At the same time, Perez had pulled off another tyre management masterclass, overtaking Bottas to finish third on a much better executed one-stop strategy.
The title fight this year between Max/Lewis and Red Bull/Mercedes seems to echo the 2017/18 Ferrari challenge against the Silver Arrows, except we can only hope that this title fight does indeed go down to the wire.
The strategy war was not the only noteworthy takeaway from Sunday’s race, as the midfield was packed with equal levels of excitement. After doubts during the rest of the weekend, McLaren seemed to shine once again when it came to their race pace. Despite both McLarens falling to P10 and P9 at one point on Sunday, Lando Norris charged up the field to finish best of the rest at P5. At the same time, Daniel Ricciardo seemed far more comfortable than in previous races in the papaya car, finishing only 11 seconds behind his teammate in P6.
Another shock on Sunday came from the Ferraris. Despite solid performances in both practice sessions and qualifying, with Sainz putting the car in P5 on Saturday, race day woes hit the team hard. Team Principle Mattia Binotto stated after Monaco that he expected Ferrari to struggle with their tyres for a bit, and indeed, two races later in France, that prediction came true. The Scuderia couldn’t get anything going from their tyres on race day, with quick degradation sending Sainz to P11 and Leclerc down to a shocking P16. It remains to be seen if these tyre issues continue.
One final noteworthy performance came from hotshot George Russell, reversing Williams’ usual shocking race pace to move up from P14 to finish P12 on Sunday. Albeit that doesn’t classify him for points, it certainly shows what both he and Williams are capable of, further pushing rumours in the sport that Russell is set to replace Bottas at Mercedes by the end of the season, even if Toto Wolff denies it.
With a surprisingly exciting race weekend behind us, the F1 circus moves to the Red Bull Ring for an Austrian double-header. Will Mercedes redeem themselves? Will Austria once again deliver a dramatic race? Will Kimi get the drink? All of this will be answered on Sunday as we move onto Round 8 of what appears to be the most evenly matched season since Rosberg’s title in 2016.