Trackside View: Paul Ricard

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SIGNES CURVE

A famous straight reappears on the Formula 1 schedule

The Mistral is blowing insistently, funnelled down from the Sainte-Baume mountains, a brooding, powerful presence sitting behind the start of that now-punctuated back straight. Wispy cumulus of purest white is being pulled by the cirrus above it against a bright blue sky. A heat haze shimmers off the long, thin strip of black that stretches out to a distant pinpoint. Sometimes the Mistral excites the dust into a frenzied whirl that filters everything light brown, even as the sun beats down without mercy. A distant stranger approaches, accompanied by an echoing droning sound as a racing car takes on form amid the haze and glints. It’s little more than a bullet tip way down there, but as it becomes bigger in the frame, ripping open a space in the air’s fabric, at these 200mph speeds that air makes a sound as it’s displaced, a dull rumbling whoosh even above the engine note trailing behind. You can hear how much downforce they have, just by implication from how much air is being moved. It grinds the tyres through the legend of a corner that is Signes, where from low in the cockpit your life options narrow to a point that only faith carries you towards it at 325kph (202mph). These cars are monsters of downforce. At a place where in the ancient past ballsy giants such as Pironi, Mansell and Senna crashed heavily trying to take it flat, these cars just consume it, regardless of the Mistral’s tail wind and unpredictable gusts. Flat without a moment’s hesitation, underbody sparks dribbling out behind, they devour the corner and exit still hungry for more. The Mercedes and Ferrari-engined cars are flat in eighth as they turn in, their Renault counterparts flat in seventh and upchanging, still accelerating, mid-corner. It’s visually impressive but way less a test of driver than last time we were here, when how the Mistral dealt her favours played a much bigger part in determining which brave guys got through and which did not.