Charles Leclerc gifted the French Grand Prix to his rival Max Verstappen when he spun out of the lead and into the barriers, seriously damaging his chances of becoming World Champion.
To the burning temperatures in the South of France, and the Circuit Paul Ricard, with its nausea inducing coloured stripes surrounding the track – for the twelfth round of the F1 World Championship.
The heat was not just confined to the air and track temperatures – an escalating row has broken out over new rules to reduce or eliminate the “bouncing” and “purposing” that has affected the new generation of F1 cars , some more than others. New rules are set to be introduced at the Belgian GP at the end of August, and yet more rules for next season. Ferrari and Red Bull claim with some justification that they have solved the problems whereas other have not dome so, and even suggest that the rule changes have been introduced to help Mercedes. F1 would not be F1 without a good row or controversy, and this one is likely to run for some time!
Talking of Mercedes, they arrived with a series of upgrades which they were confident would bring them nearer to the front, maintaining the recent progress they had made. They calculated that the Ricard circuit would suit their car, with its combination of long straights, fast curves and smooth surface, and they saw this as their best opportunity for a race win so far. But other teams had also brought along upgrades too, so a “great leap forward” for Mercedes was far from a given.
Qualifying proved that if anything Mercedes had fallen back, with their fastest car of Lewis Hamilton qualifying fourth, but a full second behind the pole sitting Ferrari of Charles Leclerc. It would probably have been fifth but for engine penalties putting the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz to the back of the grid – without these penalties the Spaniard would without doubt have been challenging for pole. The two Red Bulls qualified 2 and 3 in team order, and looked very good on long runs – they had an advantage on the long straights, whereas the Ferraris looked mega quick in the corners.
Leclerc was helped by Sainz offering a tow on the fast laps, which gave him a couple of tenths extra over Verstappen.
McLaren brought some upgrades and they were clearly working for Lando Norris, who managed to split the two Silver Arrows in fifth place, behind Hamilton and ahead of Russell. Both Haas cars looked quick – Magnusson would have been comfortably in the top ten but for engine penalties which out him down at the back of the grid, and Mick Schumacher had a very quick lap deleted due to exceeding track limits. Mention should also be made of Yuki Tsunoda who qualified his Alpha Tauri an excellent eighth.
So it looked promising with Leclerc battling to keep ahead of the two Red Bulls, and all British battle between Norris and the two Mercedes drivers, (with Alonso’s Alpine snapping at their heels) and a very fast Ferrari and two quick Haas cars at the back.
No let up from the 35C air temperature, meant that with a track temperature exceeding 50C, tyre management would be important. The pit lane at Paul Ricard is very long, meaning the overall time for a pit stop was costly. A one stop strategy would be fastest – IF the tyres last out over the 53 lap race distance.
Charles Leclerc made the most of pole position, keeping Max Verstappen behind. Hamilton made a good start and moved up to third at the expense of Sergio Perez, and Alonso made his customary flyer into fifth place in his Alpine. Leclerc concentrated on getting clear of the DRS in those early laps, when he could have been under threat from the Red Bull. Further back, the fast guys were cutting through, by lap 2 Sainz had made up three places and Magnusson an amazing seven places.
By lap 4 the DRS was activated and Verstappen was looking very quick, but Leclerc kept in front, these front two pulling clear of Hamilton who had his mirrors full of the Red Bull of Perez. Max kept the pressure on, and got very close on lap 6 after a slight error from the leader. On lap 17 Red Bull threw the dice and stopped Max for new tyres, leaving Leclerc out front well clear. But on the next lap, Charles, pushing hard lost it and spun into the tyre wall, his race run. A full safety car brought a rush of pit stops, and when the dust settled, the early stopping Verstappen was back in the lead.
Sainz continued his good progress in what was now the sole remaining Ferrari, moving up to fifth place by lap 22, but he found he had incurred a 5 second penalty due to an unsafe release at his pit stop – to be taken on his next stop, or added on at the end if he makes no further stops. It didn’t slow him down, as he pulled off a great overtake on George Russell into fourth place and then set off up the road after Checo who was running third. Meanwhile Verstappen had eased away from Hamilton, both the front two now running lonely races.