Early weekend indications pointed towards the 2018 French Grand Prix to be a boring race; just like the races in Spain, Monaco and even Canada. So much so, that the drivers took it upon themselves to try and convince the FIA to remove the chicane at the end of the back straight to try and make the race more fun. But of course, the FIA stuck to their original plans.
Come Race Day, anxiety was high - would Formula 1 deliver yet another dud? Fans attending the race at the Circuit Paul Ricard were anyway upset with the deteriorating traffic situation that saw them being stuck in their cars for hours. Let’s remember, the French fans aren’t used to being stuck in traffic jams outside the high rise offices in Lower Parel in Mumbai during peak hours! However, a first-lap-first-corner error from Sebastian Vettel (yes, he made one again!) saw several cars out of place from their regular positions - a recipe that has usually livened up Formula 1 races. So first things first, thank you, Sebastian.
‘A journey into the unknown’ is a good way to describe how Formula 1 teams and drivers would have felt when they first arrived at the Circuit Paul Ricard. How long before the drivers learned the circuit? Would this require additional engine mileage in a season where engine utilisation needs to be most optimum? Would the teams have enough data to fine-tune and optimise car setup? And what if the weather wiped out some of the available free practice time - like it did in Free Practice 3?
Different circuit, same pecking order
Given the advanced simulation tools at the disposal of the teams, it didn’t take long for the usual pecking order to fall in place - Mercedes, Red Bull Racing, Ferrari (not in that order) followed by everyone else. In qualifying, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton secured his 75th career pole position a little over a tenth ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas. After reliability concerns delayed the introduction of Mercedes’ updated engine in Canada (and much to Hamilton’s annoyance), the impact and effect of their new engine was shown as the team clinched their second front-row lock-out of the season. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton’s title-rival, made a slight mistake on his qualifying attempt and managed to secure P3. The star of the qualifying session was undoubtedly Sauber’s Charles Leclerc - in only his eighth Formula 1 race, the Ferrari junior driver made it through to Q3 while both cars of Mclaren and Williams had a painful Q1 exit. Was Leclerc able to learn the new circuit faster than his competitors?
Leclerc’s brilliance continued over the 53-lap on Sunday as well. The Monegasque driver finished 10th and scored yet another point for Sauber - his fourth points finish in the last 5 races. Leclerc was involved in battles right from the start and overtook with much ease to keep his Sauber in contention throughout the race. The rumour in the paddock of the French Grand Prix was that Ferrari were considering replacing Kimi Raikkonen with Leclerc as early as 2019. Basically, Ferrari were thinking of ‘doing a Red Bull’ by giving a young driver a chance of a lifetime to race for a World Championship winning team.
How Leclerc is different from Verstappen
Rumours or not, Leclerc’s performances in the Sauber would be hard for Ferrari (or anyone, for that matter) to ignore. The reigning Formula 2 champion possesses natural talent and is yet to show any signs of immaturity though being only 20 years of age - something that Red Bull’s prodigy Max Verstappen (also 20) is still being pulled up for. However, before you point it out, we know that Leclerc is yet to experience the pressure of racing for a title-winning team, but apart from his excessively apologetic radio messages, the young rookie is yet to put a foot wrong.
Kimi Raikkonen, whose seat at Ferrari has been questioned by fans and pundits at least five times for each of the last five seasons, drove a good race to claim the third step of the podium. Raikkonen, who made yet another mistake in qualifying, started sixth and ran a different tyre strategy that allowed him to overtake Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo in the latter stages of the race. But despite scoring four podiums in the last eight races, how is it that Raikkonen’s contract extension is still under question? The answer lies in the fact that the top three teams are in a league of their own.
Kimi Raikkonen is now the first man to complete a run of 25 podium finishes without any of them being a win. How is that even possible!? #FrenchGP 🇫🇷
— Sean Kelly (@virtualstatman) June 24, 2018
Vettel – Always anxious on the opening lap?
Sebastian Vettel made yet another opening lap error. The quadruple World Champion had the best start among the frontrunners but found himself stuck behind Hamilton and alongside Bottas while approaching Turn 1. In an attempt to keep Bottas at bay, Vettel out-braked himself, locked up and tagged Bottas’ Mercedes. This error saw Vettel pick up front wing damage, while Bottas had a left rear puncture. Luckily, both drivers didn’t lose much ground as they pitted for repairs under the Safety Car. Once their cars were fixed, Vettel charged through the field from P17 and produced some entertaining moves to finally finish fifth; as for Bottas, his progress was hampered due to floor damage and could only manage seventh place. After Singapore, this was yet another error from Vettel that saw him lose the lead to Hamilton in the Drivers’ Championship.
Vettel’s errant move saw him earn a five second time penalty which he served during his second pit-stop. However, was the FIA too lenient on Ferrari’s German driver? Niki Lauda and Hamilton certainly did seem to think so. But, without getting into the ‘whether FIA were lenient with Ferrari and Vettel’ debate, the other startling fact was the pace differential between the top three teams and the rest - it's been highlighted because of the sheer ease with which Vettel carved his way through the pack despite stopping twice for fresh rubber.
The battle of the mid-field
Elsewhere, Kevin Magnussen clinched the ‘best of the rest’ tag (sixth) for Haas, while local favourite and team-mate Romain Grosjean finished 11th and just outside the points. After eight races, Grosjean still remains one of two drivers who are yet to score points and in Grosjean’s case, it is about having a ‘clean’ weekend - one where he avoids the barriers. Haas has the potential to score consistent points and instead of leading the team to their best career season yet, Grosjean seems to be holding them back. If Leclerc doesn’t get a double promotion to Ferrari, chances are almost certain that he could get Grosjean’s seat at Haas.
Carlos Sainz Jr. scored eighth at Renault’s home race; also registering one of his first races where he was consistently quicker than the super-consistent, Nico Hulkenberg. With Red Bull shifting to Honda and Daniel Ricciardo yet to make up his mind, Sainz might end up graduating to Red Bull Racing (alongside Verstappen) for 2019. All this while seasoned veterans like Sergio Perez and Hulkenberg await their promotions to Ferrari, Mercedes and the likes. As for Red Bull, Verstappen scored his third podium in four races while Ricciardo had to settle for fourth.
Force India registered their first double DNF of the season after Grosjean caused an incident between the other two French drivers, Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly. Like always, the Williams drivers had yet another forgettable outing, but the one team that might not be able to forget the humiliation at the French Grand Prix would be Mclaren. The former World Champion team faced a double-exit in Q1 and failed to score points for third race in succession. Fernando Alonso, who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans just last weekend, found himself classified 16th in the race. Will Alonso’s quest to achieve the ‘Triple Crown’ of Motorsport make him switch to a full-time season in the Indy Car Series in 2019? If so, the competitive quotient of Formula 1’s list of drivers would definitely have dropped a few percentage points.
Finally, the French Grand Prix is the first of Formula 1’s triple header (three back-to-back races); the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix is up next, followed by the 2018 British Grand Prix. The month of July is an absolute treat for Formula 1 fans as we have four races in a span of five weeks. This also means that 100 points are up for grabs - so let’s see who scores the most - Hamilton, Vettel or someone else?
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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 15:00:26 IST