The big stories leading up to the French Grand Prix have revolved around speculation about whether it will exist for much longer. Kyalami has been tipped to replace it, but that remains a developing story.
The track itself has been one delivering a mix of performances – it can either be a bit of a snooze fest or deliver some degree of action. This weekend was no different. More on that later but, on the topic of snoozing, I once asked South African racing legend Sarel van der Merwe what he thought of Paul Ricard during his time in Group C endurance racing and his reply was, “It’s a boring track … too much runoff room.” A succinct response from “Oom Sarel”, as always. But this past weekend it was anything but that. There were highs … there were lows and then there was what Charles Leclerc experienced.
The heat. The temperature throughout the weekend was cooking and, at the start of the race, it reached 31.6°C with a track temperature of above 50°C. One can sympathise with the plight of the drivers wearing three-layer fire suits, Nomex fire-retardant undergarments and a balaclava. It’s hot! Despite some cooling technology in those suits, you can’t blame them for feeling like a rotisserie chicken at Woolworths.
Qualifying. Ferrari looked like a solid plan was in place to put Leclerc on pole with Carlos Sainz’s grid penalty, thanks to an engine replacement, relinquishing the Spaniard to play human shield for the day, using his rebuilt Ferrari to punch through the air and give Leclerc the tow on the Mistral straight. This was in the hope that a few tenths might be found.
It was all the usual suspects making it into Q3, with Daniel Ricciardo missing out by just 0.086 seconds – a brutal reminder as to how tight this game is.
The entire weekend showed the Red Bulls with far superior speed on the straights with Ferraris showing up in the corner-speed department. A great mix for the punters but with the DRS zones, this was always going to be tricky.
What’s interesting is the turn in form in the Mercedes camp with Lewis Hamilton out-qualifying George Russell again, contrary to the beginning of the season. A sign that Hamilton is gelling better with the W13 Mercedes but in the three-way Battle of the Brits, it was Lando Norris who wedged his Mclaren between the Mercedes, showing pace, rounding off the top 6 with Leclerc on pole, in front of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.
Lights out and we’re racing. Verstappen got away well on the start, but Le Clerc matched him, getting the hole shot into turn 1 before setting his sights on the work ahead. Fernando Alonso adopted his usual Spanish Samurai character at the start, making up three places from P7 to P4 and proving that the old guy’s still got it. Take that, youthful exuberance!
Ricciardo cashed in on some luck too, threading the McLaren and making three positions to join Norris on the attack. But, at the front, it was all about Leclerc who looked as if he was soaking up the pressure, breaking the tow of Verstappen, even with DRS, and that Red Bull Speed. The first move came from Red Bull, pitting Verstappen on lap 16, but the big moment came when Leclerc spun out at Le Beausset on lap 18 after what seemed to be an honest mistake, with the rear end stepping out, gifting Verstappen with a clear path ahead, getting favoured with some luck and getting a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. But that’s racing for you. Sometimes luck comes your way. Most times, it doesn’t.
The rest of the race served up a healthy dose of action and all eyes were on Carlos Sainz. After starting P19 he had made up 16 places to P3, fighting with Russell and then Perez. What a sight to behold and a truly gritty performance by the Spaniard who looks to be getting a better handle on the Ferrari he seemed to struggle with at the beginning of the season.
Much to just about everyone’s surprise, the team made a call to box Sainz, sacrificing third place. Why this was the case, we might or might not find out.
Russell seemed to be in a fighting spirit after he bullied his way into a move that can only be described as “brave”, diving Perez on lap 42 at the chicane on the Mistral straight. Perez went on to avoid contact and, after a proper whinging session by Russell, no foul was found. The Brit then had to do it the hard way, which he did with three laps to go after a virtual safety car period, thanks to Guanyu Zhou spinning out. Russell got the jump on the restart, catching Perez having a late-race siesta.
Sainz came from P19 to finish P6, justifiably earning him the driver of the day award and, yes, Ferrari might be getting some serious slack for poor strategic decisions and, yes, they might deserve them. But understanding that for a relatively “new” team in the modern era like them, who have not had the benefit of a winning car, they’re all on a learning curve – a steep one.
It certainly would not have made the Monday debrief any more bearable, but I can assure you what separates the types of people who are in F1 from the couch critics at home is that they can turn it around while swimming in sewage. That is what makes F1-worthy team members exactly that. Red Bull was, I remind you, also in this position in 2019, and several other times before, and when Ferrari does get it right, they’ll be converting the performance into victories.
The final results saw Verstappen enjoying the spoils of the top podium with Hamilton finishing 10 seconds behind him and closing that performance gap. Russell, meanwhile, occupied the third podium step, altogether great points for Mercedes as they battled to eke out performance from a car that is not on par with the rest.
All is not lost for Charles, but 78 points lost is just a “would have, could have, should have” situation. Spilt milk and something that will haunt him at the end of the season, but despite fully acknowledging it which, for a young racer, is quite admirable. He needs to dig deep and look beyond, remain focused on the bigger picture and, who knows, luck could swing his way over a few races.
As for Paul Ricard, we’ll have to wait and see what the next few weeks bring. So, whether it’s bonjour or au revoir one last time, time will tell. The next race is on 31 July when we head to the Hungaroring in Hungary.