Formula 1 went back to the 1980s at Paul Ricard last weekend and found it an uneasy fit.
There was a deliciously retro European glamour to a circuit with an adjacent runway for private jets set on a mountain plateau. But modern-day spectators don’t find it acceptable to queue for eight hours and miss the cars practising because no one had worked out that to load 10,000 cars into a field through a single entry point at 5kph would take 20 hours. The late pastis magnate, whose project this track was, would surely have been nonplussed to be hosting a race where alcohol advertising was banned, where teams had unlimited money but hardly any engines, where the cars whooshed rather than screamed.
But in other respects, Monsieur Ricard was ahead of his time. The track he created in 1969 became the modern blueprint, with acres of run-off areas to give a look remarkably similar to, say, Austin or Bahrain. All it needed was a lick of blue and red paint in those run-off areas to define the actual line of the track, making them look less like a car park (but ironically making for something remarkably similar to the Martini livery that Williams couldn’t run on its cars).
Around such a circuit, created to give massive safety margins for the performance of 1970s F1 cars, the 2018 machines were incredibly fast. This layout allowed them to stretch their legs and to see them flat-in-eighth through Signes, dissecting that legendary corner undisturbed by the Mistral gusting down the back straight, was impressive. But it was high speed guidance rather than derring-do. When it was introduced, the Circuit Paul Ricard represented the high-gloss, glammed-up, safer F1 that was coming; more superficial but less barbarous than racing on a public road alongside cliff faces and sheer drops at Clermont-Ferrand. But naïvely, without knowing where that would lead.
Past and present mixed incongruously at Ricard last weekend, the chafing around the edges where they met, making for some uncomfortable questions for the sport.
Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes headed the pack of colourful missiles pretty much from 75th career pole start to 65th career victory. The long Mistral in combination with fast corners rewarded aero efficiency even more than usual and, of the top cars, the Mercedes W09 is clearly the best in that department. It also benefitted from a useful engine upgrade and perhaps from the return to the thin-gauge tyre that had worked so well on the car in Barcelona.
Just how hard the Ferrari might have pushed it, we didn’t get to find out, as Sebastian Vettel, trying hard to take advantage of his softer compound tyres by passing the Mercedes into the first corner – the only thing that might have allowed him to beat them – over-committed and hit Valtteri Bottas.
With the Ferrari and second Merc in the pits for repairs at the end of the lap, Hamilton had only to monitor the gap back to Max Verstappen’s Red Bull for the rest of the afternoon.
A return to Ricard’s combined demands of Mistral straight and fast sweeps always looked likely to be good news for the aero-efficient Mercedes – and so it proved.
Throughout the interruptions – Bottas’ Friday water leak that lost the team a proper reading on the tyre comparison, a rained-out FP3 – the W09’s underlying pace always looked the strongest. A 10deg C reduction in the track temperature from Friday to Saturday also probably helped in that it swerved the ideal tyre choice away from Red Bull’s soft-favouring allocation and more towards the conventional supersoft/ultrasoft combination. Plus, of course, there was the return to the thin-gauge tyre last seen at Barcelona on which the car seemed so well suited.
Around a track constantly on the verge of drizzle but never quite losing its core temperature, the Merc was planted through the high-speed bends, able to run a little more rear wing than the Ferrari and a lot more than the Spa-winged Red Bulls. Furthermore, the Phase 2.1 spec engine (essentially the upgrade that was postponed from Canada) was a useful step when combined with the zero-mileage freshness. Bottas’ lack of track time left him half-a-step behind Hamilton who was always in control. He wasn’t as happy with his Q3 laps as with those of Q1 and Q2 when he’d had a chunkier advantage over his team-mate than the 0.118sec he eventually shaded him by to secure his 75th career pole. They were comfortably quick enough to be able to use the supers rather than the ultras in Q2 for a longer opening race stint.
This was Mercedes’ 52nd front row lockout, but Hamilton was quick to rebuff suggestions that the 0.4sec advantage over Ferrari was primarily down to the increased power of the new engine: “We’re in the fifth year of this hybrid engine formula and the gains are getting smaller now. Everyone’s worked very hard to get it ready, but the upgrade is not the reason why we’ve put ourselves on the front row here.” Estimates put the gain at around 0.2sec.
Third-fastest, Vettel said: “After the first Q3 runs I thought we were close enough to them that pole might just be possible if I did a really fantastic lap. So I tried really hard on my final run, but it was too much – and I just lost time. And they improved anyway. They were just a bit too strong for us around here.” Ferrari had added a new front wing to its aero upgrade from Montréal.
Kimi Räikkönen, having no extra ultras, was fuelled for a single-run, multiple-lap Q3 and was accordingly sent out early. He messed up both his attack laps and his sixth-fastest time, 0.6sec off Vettel, included a big oversteer moment at Turn 6. Ferrari chose not to emulate the Mercedes/Red Bull Q2 tyre policy and stuck with ultras throughout.
The Mistral straight proved a little too long for a Red Bull to be competitive over the lap and trimmed out to achieve Mercedes/Ferrari-comparable terminal speeds left it pressing down a little too lightly on the rubber, which it was struggling to keep in the temperature window. Verstappen got to within 0.3sec of Vettel, with Daniel Ricciardo a further tenth-and-a-half adrift. “I don’t think we maximised the potential of the car today,” said Verstappen. “I was struggling a bit with front grip which didn’t make it easy…. It’s a pity it didn’t stay wet.”
an Alfa Romeo just one row behind a Ferrari!
Ricciardo’s rear-wing wasn’t quite as trimmed out as Verstappen’s. It was a decision he came to regret. “We split the cars yesterday, on the downforce levels, with Max lower than me. It was pretty evenly matched but it looked like the low was worth trying. We put that on for this morning but with the weather we didn’t get to try it. We decided not to run in qualifying with something we hadn’t tried yet and though we still had a lot of front wing in hand [to balance the car], by the end of Q1 we had already used every bit of it and we still had understeer. In other sessions you can do other things on the car but in quali your hands are tied, so it was a frustrating day.”
Carlos Sainz’s Renault was seventh, 1.1sec adrift of Räikkönen, but comfortably faster throughout than team-mate Nico Hülkenberg, who didn’t make Q3, back in 12th. The team wasn’t expecting to be its usual best of the rest here, with the long Mistral, and so was well pleased with Sainz’s achievement. Hülkenberg was just never as happy with the balance of his car, saying, “I haven’t found the love or harmony I usually have with the car, so it’s been a little difficult. In a tight midfield battle, you particularly need that confidence and if you don’t have it, it’s enough to miss out on Q3.”
One guy with plenty of love and harmony with his car was that unerringly impressive rookie Charles Leclerc who squeezed his Alfa Romeo Sauber into Q3 at the expense of Hülkenberg and the Force Indias and who, thanks to Grosjean’s accident, was then able to put the car eighth on the grid – an Alfa Romeo just one row behind a Ferrari! He was predictably overjoyed and the performance (and Räikkönen’s) might just have come at a very significant moment as Ferrari considers its driver options for next year. Marcus Ericsson got the sister car through to Q2 but was 0.8sec slower and would line up 15th.
Romain Grosjean’s Haas had looked favourite to secure the best of the rest status, but he dropped the car into the Turn 3 barriers on his first Q3 attack lap, just taking a little too much speed in for the cool and slightly damp track surface. This left him a distraught 10th, having again had a consistent couple of tenths advantage over team-mate Magnussen up to that point, but with Magnussen putting the Q3 lap in to go ninth. Grosjean’s accident red-flagged the session, spoiling Magnussen’s only fresh-tyred lap.
The Force Indias struggled around a track that might’ve been expected to favour them; neither pink car made it into Q3, with Esteban Ocon 11th, 0.3sec and two places ahead of Sergio Pérez. “I don’t feel we maximised the qualifying today,” said Pérez. “We could have been much further up the grid. I think we were unlucky with the conditions because we were expecting more rain towards the end of Q2. I went out too early and did my laps, and then the track improved.” The new front-wing, trialled on and off since Baku but never raced, was finally on the car.
The Toro Rosso-Honda wasn’t enjoying the Mistral straight and Pierre Gasly was ahead of only the McLarens through the speed trap there. This limited him to 14th fastest in Q2. Team-mate Brendon Hartley – taking an engine change grid penalty – went out in the Q1 part of proceedings, in 17th, having caught traffic on his first run and a light rain shower on his second.
McLaren was faster only than Williams and neither Fernando Alonso nor Stoffel Vandoorne (16th and 18th respectively, split by 0.2sec) made it out of Q1 – the team’s worst qualifying performance of the year. Aero inefficiency and its usual medium-speed corner aero imbalance was a costly set of traits around here – and they were 0.9sec slower than the Enstone cars, just as at Montréal.
Sergey Sirotkin got the gripless Williams to within 0.7sec of Alonso’s time, which has to count as a good effort. Team-mate Lance Stroll was last, 0.1sec behind.
Some French military pomp and an amazing demonstration by Franky Zapata and his jet pack got things underway as the cars sat on the grid, facing in the direction of the distant mountain range peaks. The few clouds were fluffy and virgin white against the bluest of skies but a thunderstorm was only 10km away and heading generally in this direction.
As the fog of peripheral distractions cleared, the gantry lights controlled the release of the missiles. The greater traction of the softer compound ultrasofts on Vettel’s Ferrari was visually obvious against the harder-tyred Mercs and Red Bulls. Vettel was immediately hauling the silver cars in, getting alongside Bottas and closing in fast on Hamilton as they arrived as a blur of speed and ambition into that colour-defined tight left-right of Turns 1-2. In the braking zone, Bottas was hanging on to Vettel’s right, pinning him on that left-hand-side, making it impossible to use the Ferrari’s greater momentum to flick alongside Hamilton. The no44 Mercedes thus took up its line through the turn, now essentially set free for the afternoon. Bottas turned in from alongside Vettel, leaving plenty of room to get through there side-by-side, Vettel braked late, too late, locked up momentarily and collided with Bottas as the Mercedes turned in. A lopsided Ferrari front-wing trailed sparks along the ground; a left-rear-punctured Mercedes spun and trailed back to the pits, flailing tyre damaging the floor along the way.
Verstappen, having taken to the colourful run-off in avoidance of the accident, emerged in second.
What had Max seen of the incident? “Well,” he delighted in answering, tongue firmly in cheek. “I think next time you see Seb you should ask him to change his style, y’know? Because honestly, it’s not acceptable. That’s what they said to me at the beginning of the season, so I think they should do the same! And then, of course, Seb shouldn’t do anything, and just drive again and learn from this and go on. That’s my advice to everyone in this room.”
Räikkönen had opted for the outside line of the corner but took in too much momentum and had been zapped by Sainz, Ricciardo, Leclerc and Magnussen, with Magnussen then riding around the outside of the Sauber through 3 and 4.
The race was now under the safety car – and not just because of the Vettel/Bottas incident. A second multi-car accident had been triggered at Turns 3/4 involving Ocon and Gasly. Grosjean had damaged Ocon’s car by leaning on it up to Turn 1 until Ocon had nowhere left to go, damaging the side of the Force India. This may have played its part in Ocon, a couple of corners later, veering across the path of Gasly who couldn’t avoid hitting it hard.
Hamilton was out of Verstappen’s DRS reach pretty much immediately and controlled things from there.
Scratch two cars. Grosjean, taking to the Turn 1/2 run-off, then made light contact with Vettel’s already-damaged Ferrari. He exited the run-off third, but then backed off to put himself approximately where he’d been before the brain fade moment.
In the pits Vettel took on a new nosecone and rejoined ahead only of the floor-damaged Bottas. Both had been fitted with the hardest tyre (the soft) and hoped to get through to the end. Alonso and both Williams had stopped for a tactical change, to get onto these same tyres. Upon the restart Hamilton, Verstappen, Sainz, Ricciardo, Magnussen, Leclerc, Räikkönen, Grosjean, Pérez, Hülkenberg and the rest sprinted off to get the race proper underway, beginning lap six.
Alonso spun to last as Vettel passed him in robust fashion.
Hamilton was out of Verstappen’s DRS reach pretty much immediately and controlled things from there. Verstappen understood that he had nothing with which to push him and settled into his own groove, one which took him quickly clear of the out-of-position Sainz, the Renault devoured soon enough by Ricciardo and, subsequently, Räikkönen once the Ferrari had forced its way past Leclerc and Magnussen. Most of the passing was being done into the chicane in the middle of the Mistral, especially once DRS had been enabled.
Vettel carved through the slower cars much more effectively than could Bottas, hobbled as he was by a lot of floor damage that lost a big chunk of aero performance and making the car an oversteering handful. By the 12th lap Vettel was taking 10th position from Hülkenberg at Le Beausset (the left-hander towards the end of the lap) and would pick off almost on consecutive laps Pérez, Grosjean, Leclerc, Magnussen and Sainz. He was back up to fifth after just 20 laps. Bottas by this time was still back in 10th, chasing down Hülkenberg. His floor damage made him slow onto the back straight and therefore unable to use DRS to pass. Instead he would do his moves up the inside into Le Beausset.
Leclerc was pushing Magnussen hard as the window for the first stops began to open. But the Sauber driver ran briefly off track in his enthusiastic chase and was passed by Hülkenberg. This left Magnussen free of any undercut threat and though he trailed Sainz by some distance, he kept ultras in shape longer, so much so that Sainz was forced to pit on lap 26 to cover off his undercut pressure.
An interrupted set of practices meant not much definitive information had been established about the likely duration of each of the tyre compounds, but pre-race the estimation had been the ultra would be good for 15-20 laps, the super for more than 30, and the soft for more than 40. Yet by lap 25, the ultra-shod Räikkönen was generally still maintaining pace with the supersoft-shod Ricciardo ahead of him, even applying a bit of undercut pressure at one stage, forcing Daniel to up the pace in reaction. As he did this, Ricciardo began to pick up understeer – the upper two flaps of one side of his front wing had been damaged by a piece of debris.
Räikkönen’s wasn’t at this stage the Ferrari that was concerning the Red Bulls. Vettel, on his harder tyres was lapping at their pace, and Verstappen was only just able to stay far enough clear that he’d be able to pit and still come out ahead. Ricciardo couldn’t ever quite get that gap out over the Ferrari – and so Verstappen was prioritised as Vettel began to edge closer. Max was brought in on lap 25 (a short stint for supersofts but forced into it by Vettel’s strong pace) and rejoined on fresh softs, just ahead of Vettel. Ricciardo was left out for another three laps, trying to squeeze out the required speed but unable to do so with his wing damage. After pitting on lap 28 he rejoined behind Vettel. But still he had hope – for Vettel would be taking a 5sec penalty for his collision with Bottas, to be added onto his race time if he didn’t pit again. All Ricciardo had to do was stay within 5sec of him. Doable? Probably, as the Ferrari’s tyres would be 52 laps old if Seb managed to eke them out without stopping.
The Ferrari was a quicker car around Ricard than the Red Bull, but not to the extent it could overcome such a tyre disadvantage. With an uninterrupted race, did it have the pace for victory, as Maurizio Arrivabene later claimed? Probably not. Hamilton was cruising, on low engines modes as directed and just managing his race as opposed to actually racing. He didn’t turn a seriously fast lap all day, as he didn’t need to. Without the Turn 1 Vettel error, Ferrari could’ve made Hamilton’s day more uncomfortable. But that’s probably about all.
The remaining shape of the race would in fact centre around just how long the tyres could be made to last. The thunderstorm had passed some way south west of the track and was no longer a threat. Since the Red Bull stops, Räikkönen – on the softest ultras, remember – was running a distant second but still keeping up a pace only half a second off Hamilton’s on the harder supers. Hamilton pitted on lap 32 and had a set of softs fitted to get him to the end. The temporary leader Räikkönen was finally brought in two laps later and so good had he been with the tyres that Ferrari felt confident enough to fit supers rather than softs. He rejoined back in fifth, around 7sec behind team-mate Vettel who was now struggling badly with his extremely old tyres and had been repassed by Ricciardo a couple of laps earlier up the inside of Le Beausset.
Lapping around 2sec faster, Räikkönen was upon Vettel in short order – and Seb was instructed to move aside so that Räikkönen could set chase for Ricciardo.
Bottas, by this time, had grittily worked his way up to sixth, albeit 20sec adrift of the Ferraris. He too was struggling badly with tyres that had been on since lap one. Eventually the fronts began to lose temperature dramatically, suggesting that the tread was dangerously low. He was brought in for replacements (supers) on lap 39, a problem with the rear jack delayed things, and he came out behind Magnussen who was still pressuring Sainz. With two further places on offer, Bottas used his new tyre grip and this low fuel/fresh tyre combo allowed him to take fastest lap despite his floor damage.
He was frustrated in this attempt by a VSC after Stroll’s very old (and also flat-spotted) left-front tyre exploded as he turned into Signes.
As soon as Bottas had pitted, there was no downside in Ferrari not also pitting Vettel. He came in a lap later, rejoining on ultras after taking his 5sec penalty without losing his fifth place.
Räikkönen on his fresh supers was around 0.5sec faster than the struggling Ricciardo in third and with eight laps to go was right with him. On the 47th lap he had a look around the outside of Turn 1 but thought better of it, instead concentrating on getting within the DRS detection point between Turns 6 and 7, so as to use the wing-stalling device down the Mistral. Ricciardo was easy meat, making a token feint one way, Räikkönen ignoring it and passing around his outside even before the braking zone. After his second stop, Vettel was too far back to be a danger and Ricciardo settled for fourth.
Only a late MGUk failure for Sainz (exactly the one suffered by Ricciardo at Monaco) deprived him of a deserved sixth place, as Magnussen and the chasing Bottas soared past. Hülkenberg finished a few seconds adrift of his team-mate, having done a transposed soft/ultras strategy that would likely have worked well if the expected storm had arrived late in the race. Pérez had retired from his fight with Hülkenberg after the new-spec Merc engine showed a sudden water pressure loss. Leclerc took another point for Sauber. A lap down came Grosjean, Vandoorne, Ericsson, Hartley and Sirotkin.
Alonso had run out of rubber and brakes after his lap one stop and been passed by his team-mate. Thereafter he pitted for new tyres and – with the engine modes and ers fully armed – he attempted to set fastest lap. He was frustrated in this attempt by a VSC after Stroll’s very old (and also flat-spotted) left-front tyre exploded as he turned into Signes. The Williams stopped before reaching the barriers but with its flat tyre couldn’t be moved. Closely-following team-mate Sirotkin thus made up a place and Alonso stopped on the final lap with rear suspension failure.
The VSC was rescinded with less than a lap to go – allowing Hamilton to cross the line in style. “I’m not really a massive fan of the track itself,” the winner explained afterwards, “but it’s in such a beautiful part of the world and the atmosphere is unbelievable. Just going round there seeing the fans, particularly when we did the drivers’ parade today, it felt like an older day race.” Yes, it did.