The Paul Ricard Circuit is not a fan-favourite in F1 with its red and blue stripes in place of grass or gravel for the run-off areas. It has fast sweeping corners and one particular overtaking zone that ends in a relatively tight chicane. Like the Spanish GP at Barcelona, the French GP at Paul Ricard doesn’t offer much in terms of on-track action and has been dominated by the Mercedes drivers in the two races since its return to the F1 calendar. After the excitement of the Baku GP, this one was expected to be a dull one for the season. How wrong we were.

Red Bull was on par with Mercedes through practice with Max Verstappen topping the time charts a few times. In qualifying, the Dutchman was consistently quicker than championship rival Lewis Hamilton and claimed Pole position. Valtteri Bottas would be lining up just behind them and would be joined by Sergio Perez on the second row. It was a decent qualifying result for Ferrari as well with Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc starting fifth and seventh respectively. They were split by the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly who was looking for a strong result at his home race. McLaren drivers Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo both made it to Q3 this time and were eighth and tenth fastest respectively. The orange duo was split by Fernando Alonso, aiming to get his Alpine team a good result at their home race.

After a cloudy Saturday, some rain was predicted for Sunday. However, the showers came hours before the F1 race, only to bless the Formula 3 grid with a wet Sunday. These weather conditions and the F3 race on wet weather tyres unintentionally made the main event a lot less predictable and therefore interesting to watch.

Max and Lewis had an equally good start on Sunday when the lights went out. The Red Bull driver kept his inside line for the first corner, a left-hander but was caught out by a lack of cornering grip which meant he went wide for the switchback into Turn 2. Verstappen was able to stay in control and rejoin the track safely enough but had surrendered the lead to Hamilton. Bottas stayed in third and Perez battled Sainz as he recovered from his slow start. 

The top three were quick to distance themselves from the rest of the pack with Perez slightly adrift. Verstappen stayed within a couple of seconds of Hamilton and kept himself just out of DRS range from Bottas behind, and Perez was another 5 seconds behind the Finn. The field was quick to notice that the tyre degradation was a lot higher than anyone had expected. Since the frontrunners were pushing a lot harder than most, they were eating through their Medium tyres the fastest. Perez was running a more conservative strategy but was close enough to the leaders to reduce Mercedes’ options, something that Max’s last two teammates were rarely able to do. Hamilton also had the advantage of track position which is usually a strong point around this track.

After the first 16 laps, Lewis had a three-second gap to Max who had a similar gap to Valtteri. Mercedes pitted Bottas first on Lap 18 who rejoined the race behind Perez in P4 and Red Bull responded by pitting Verstappen on the following lap. Surprisingly, the Dutchman exited the pits while ahead of the Finn thanks to a great in-lap and a slightly faster stop. The undercut didn’t work in favour of Mercedes here and pitted the Lewis on the next lap, confident that their advantage on Max was good enough. But the Red Bull was much better at getting its Hard tyres up to speed on its out-lap and Verstappen was alongside Hamilton as the Brit was exiting the pits before passing him down the inside of Turn 1. The Dutchman may have regained track position on his rival but now had the more difficult task of trying to stay just outside of DRS range from the two Mercedes drivers on his tail.

Sergio Perez was able to extend his first stint on the Medium tyres by going slightly slower than the trio at the front. After they pitted, he was in the lead, controlling the pace and setting himself up for a great one-stop race, especially towards the end. He finally came in for his Hard tyres at the end of Lap 24 and rejoined the race in a comfortable P4. With tyres that were 8 laps younger than Bottas’, he was primed to challenge for the podium later in the race.

For nearly 10 laps, Hamilton and Bottas kept the pressure on Verstappen after their pit stops. The Red Bull was running a lower-downforce setup for a straight-line speed advantage which was helping the No.33 put up a good defence, even when the No.44 Mercedes would have a DRS advantage. Like the Mediums, the Hard compound tyres were suffering more degradation than anticipated, especially at the aggressive pace of the front runners. According to the radio excerpts on the broadcast, all three drivers had reported to their teams that a two-stop strategy seemed like a better bet. While it seemed like a similar situation for Mercedes as witnessed in the Spanish GP, the threat of Perez in their pit window on fresher tyres could mean that both their drivers finish behind the Red Bulls.

Knowing Hamilton’s unmatched ability to nurse tyres to the end of a race while going reasonably quickly, Red Bull made the bold gamble of pitting Verstappen a second time. Their opportunity came as Hamilton backed off to preserve his tyres for the later part of the race and allowed Verstappen a 3.5-second lead. Still, the stop came surprisingly early as the Hard tyres only did 13 laps before they got swapped for a set of used Mediums. When Max rejoined the race in P4 on Lap 33, he had 20 laps to close the 20-second gap to Lewis who was now in the lead. It was the Bull’s time to go on the hunt and get some payback.

On the Medium tyres, in a bit of clean air, a lighter fuel load than the start of the race and with the chance to claim another victory, Verstappen was blitzing his way around the track. At first, he was reducing the gap to the leader by almost two seconds per lap, partly due to Hamilton slowing his pace to save some tyres for a final battle towards the end of the race. On Lap 36, Checo made way for Max to come past with ease. He knew he was still on track to snatch P3 from Bottas and did not need to hinder his teammate’s battle for P1.

The pressure was mounting on Bottas (in P2) to try and delay Verstappen’s charge to try and help Hamilton ahead. Max’s aggressive pace was necessary but it was eating up the life of his Mediums as well and Bottas could drain some more of the grip by holding him up or forcing him to drive in dirty air. By Lap 44, the No.33 Red Bull was comfortably in DRS range of the No.77 Mercedes. As they blasted down the straight towards Turn 8 with Max’s wing wide open, Valtteri chose to defend the inside line. But the Finn outbraked himself on his worn-out tyres, going wide and allowing Verstappen to get alongside at the exit of the chicane. The Red Bull had the grip and the pace advantage to get ahead down the inside of Turn 10 and stay ahead. In the end, Bottas was unable to hold up Verstappen at all and he knew that Perez would be upon him soon enough.

Max was not catching Lewis as quickly as he was at the start of his final stint on the Medium tyres. The Brit had picked up his pace again while the Red Bull driver also lost some time as he made his way past the backmarkers. It was a tense countdown of laps and seconds between these two epic rivals. On Lap 50, Verstappen was only 1.6 seconds behind Hamilton. On Lap 51, he was just in DRS range but not close enough. At the start of Lap 52, Max was just over half a second behind down the main straight. In the next DRS zone, towards Turn 8, Verstappen overtook Hamilton down the inside at the end of the straight. 

Max took the chequered flag to bag his third win of the 2021 season, nearly 3 seconds ahead of Lewis. While races at Paul Ricard had a poor reputation in terms of offering exciting battles for the lead, the 2021 GP came down to the wire with the gap between Red Bull and Mercedes cars being the closest it’s ever been.

Behind the epic battle for the win, Perez had also managed to get past Bottas in the final five laps. On Lap 44, he’d been nearly five seconds behind his target and by Lap 49, he was less than 0.7 seconds away from P3. He was on Bottas’ tail down the main DRS zone, the straight towards Turn 8. While the Finn did a better job defending the corner this time around, he barely had any grip on his 36-lap old Hard tyres. Meanwhile, Perez’s relatively fresher tyres gave him better traction at the exit of the chicane and allowed him to pass Bottas down the inside towards Turn 10. However, the No.11 Red Bull did exceed track limits at the exit of that corner which made him a potential candidate for a time penalty. With that hope in mind, Mercedes decided not to pit Bottas to steal a point off Red Bull for the fastest lap. However, Perez was soon cleared of any penalty as he’d completed the pass before going wide. Plus, he was more than 5 seconds clear of Bottas by the end of the race so it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. 

This was Red Bull’s first double podium since Malaysia 2017 and well earned by the team. Both drivers did a stellar job in executing their respective strategies to get the best possible result. 

Meanwhile, it seemed like Mercedes had dropped the ball yet again, leaving it all on Hamilton to make it work. It may seem harsh as nobody expected that kind of tyre degradation but some of their decisions, in retrospect, seemed inherently flawed. The viewers did get to hear Bottas’ expletive radio message to his team when we got passed by Perez, about them not listening to him saying that it would a two-stop race, which has fueled many rumours of his standing within the team. But it was likely just an honest remark in the heat of the moment which is quite common. 

The battle for the podium was strategically intense with just a little bit of track action towards the end. However, there were some decent battles in the middle-order which were super entertaining as well. 

Daniel Ricciardo had a tight battle with Fernando Alonso in the early laps, with a late-braking overtake on Lap 11. Norris had dropped down to P10 at the start but was on his teammate’s tail as the McLarens carved their way up the field. He slipped past Alonso just a couple of corners after Daniel. The two drivers were then put on different strategies with the Aussie pitting early to undercut Gasly and Sainz while Norris was left out for a much longer stint. Lando finally pitted on Lap 25, same as Perez, after running in P5 for a while and rejoined the race in P12. He was easily able to catch up with those who pitted earlier and on Lap 30, he overtook Gasly and Leclerc to move up into P9. Sainz was passed a few laps later with only Ricciardo ahead in P7 whom he overtook down the long straight on Lap 33 thanks to the fresher tyres. 

The two Aston Martins piloted by Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll were running in P5 and P6 respectively at this point. Both were doing a long first stint having started on the Hard tyres, Seb from 12th and Lance from 19th on the grid. They were managing their pace and tyre wear quite well and were the only ones to make this strategy work in their favour. Stroll pitted on Lap 35 and Vettel on Lap 37 for the Medium tyres which would allow them to make their way back up the order with relative ease. 

At the end of 53 laps, Norris and Ricciardo crossed the finish line in P5 and P6 respectively, earning the best possible result in a race dominated by Red Bull and Mercedes. Towards the end of the race, Daniel was being caught up by Gasly and Alonso whose tyres were only a lap or two less used. Pierre has continued his point-scoring run in the AlphaTauri and can squeeze all the performance from his AT02 consistently. Meanwhile, Fernando did well to make the single-stop strategy work for him despite the Alpine’s lack of race pace compared to the rivals.

The final points were scored by Vettel and Stroll who classified P9 and P10 which is the team’s first strong result at a conventional track (aka, not a city circuit). 

A flawed strategy and the severe tyre degradation issues saw both Ferraris finish out of the points for the first time this season. Sainz finished his 2021 French GP in P11 while a late stop for Leclerc saw the Monegasque classify P16.

George Russell is still to score his first F1 championship point but gets closer with each race. After a rough start, he was able to recover well enough to finish P12 while teammate Nicholas Latifi finished P18. 

This French GP was another odd race in F1 with zero retirements. It can be seen as a testament to the skill of today’s drivers and the mechanical reliability of these cars, OR, as a sign of how dull F1 can be without grass run-offs and cars that struggle to make overtakes outside of DRS zones. You decide.

Verstappen now has a 12-point lead over Hamilton in the driver standings while Red Bull has a 37-point lead in the constructor standings. McLaren’s strong result in France has placed them 16-points clear of Ferrari as they battle for third. 

With the race weekend over, it’s a short wait to the next one in Austria at the Red Bull Ring. While it has been a strong track for the Red Bulls, Mercedes still has a good chance of outpacing them in race trim. Also, its fast corners and heavy braking zones don’t leave much room for mistakes, unlike Paul Ricard. 

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Final Classification

  1. M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda — 1:27:25.770
  2. L. Hamilton Mercedes +2.904
  3. S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda +8.811
  4. V. Bottas Mercedes +14.618
  5. L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +64.032
  6. D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +75.857
  7. P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +76.596
  8. F. Alonso Alpine Renault +77.695
  9. S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes + 79.666
  10. L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +91.946
  11. C. Sainz Ferrari +99.337
  12. G. Russell Williams Mercedes +1 lap
  13. Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +1 lap
  14. E. Ocon Alpine Renault +1 lap
  15. A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
  16. C. Leclerc Ferrari +1 lap
  17. K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +1 lap
  18. N. Latifi Williams Mercedes +1 lap
  19. M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +1 lap
  20. N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari +1 lap

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