French GP at La Castellet… He who blinks first…
The big stories leading up to the French Grand Prix have all revolved around its longevity on the F1 calendar. Kyalami has been tipped to replace it, and well, we South Africans wouldn't mind that one bit. The track itself, though, is known for delivering a mix of performances... either a snooze fest or delivering some degree of action.
This weekend was no different. More on that later... 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. His reply, quite simply, was "it's a boring track. Too much runoff room". Succinct responses 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 surface temperature throughout the weekend was cooking and at the start of the race, it reached 31.6 degrees with a track temperature of over 50 degrees. One can sympathise with the plight of the driver when you're wearing a three-layer fire suit, Nomex fire retardant undergarments, and a balaclava. It's hot! Despite some cooling technology built into the suits, you can't blame them all for feeling like a rotisserie chicken.
Qualifying. Ferrari looked like it had a solid plan to put Leclerc on pole in light of Sainz's grid penalty thanks to an engine replacement. This relinquished 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 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 played to the strength of 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 return to form in the Mercedes camp, with Hamilton out qualifying Russell again, contrary to the beginning of the season. A sign that Hamilton is working better with the W13 Mercedes. In the three-way Battle of the Brits, Lando Norris wedged his Mclaren between the Mercedes. He showed pace rounding off the top 6 with Le Clerc on pole, in front of Verstappen and Perez.
Lights out and we're racing. Verstappen got away well on the start, but Leclerc matched him, getting the hole shot into the first turn before setting his sights on the work ahead. Alonso adopted his usual Spanish Samurai character at the start, making up three places from P7 to P4 and proving that the old guys still got it. Take that youthful exuberance!
Ricciardo cashed in on some luck, too, threading the Mclaren and making up three places to join Norris on the attack. But at the front, it was all about Charles Leclerc, who looked like he was soaking up the pressure, braking the tow of Verstappen even with DRS and that blistering Red Bull speed. The first move came from Red Bull pitting Verstappen on lap 16. The big moment came when Charles Leclerc spun out at Le Beausset on lap 18 after what seemed to be an honest mistake made, with the rear end stepping out. This gifted Verstappen 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 made up 16 places to P3, fighting with Geroge Russell and then Sergio 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. Then, to just about everyone's surprise, the team made the call to box Sainz, sacrificing third place. Why this was the case, we might or might not find out.
George Russell seemed to be in a fighting spirit after he bullied his way into a move that can only be described as 'brave,' dive-bombing Sergio Perez on lap 42 at the chicane on the Mistral straight. Perez avoided contact. Russel complained, but no foul was found. With three laps to go, Zhou spun out, causing a virtual safety car period gifting Russell the jump on the restart and catching Perez, who was having a late race siesta.
Carlos Sainz battled from P19 to finish P6… justifiably so earning him the driver of the day award. Yes, Ferrari may be getting some serious slack for poor strategic decisions. It wouldn't have made the Monday debrief better, but I can assure you that the people in F1 can turn it around against all odds. This separates them from couch critics at home. That's what makes F1-worthy team members exactly that. Red Bull was, if 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 results saw Verstappen enjoying the spoils of the top podium step with Hamilton finishing 10 seconds behind and closing that performance gap. Russell occupied the third step, securing well-deserved points for Mercedes as they battled with salvaging performance out of a car that isn't on par with the rest. All isn't lost for Charles… 78 points lost is just a would have, could have, should have" situation.
It's spilt milk and something that'll haunt Charles at the end of the season. But despite fully acknowledging this, which for a young racer is admirable, he needs to dig deep and look beyond it. He needs to remain focused on the bigger picture and who knows, luck could swing his way in a few races. As for Paul Riccard, we'll have to wait and see what the next few weeks entail so whether it's Bonjour or Araveour one last time, time will tell. The next race is on 31 July, when we head to Hungary. Estaban Ocon won there last time. Remember that?
Words: Brent vd Schyff