Verstappen's victory a 'true reflection' of Red Bull might: 2021 French Grand Prix report
Paul Ricard hosted a rare thriller, as Max Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton in a duel for the 2021 French Grand Prix; the defending champion conceding that Mercedes was on the back foot in the championship race
Paul Ricard gets a bad rap, but the 2021 French Grand Prix helped it recover some of it as a thriller played out between the top two teams in front of Formula 1’s biggest post-pandemic crowd.
All of the talk in the build-up – at least until qualifying – had been about tyre pressures. Flexi wings were less fashionable, but the increased psi and new technical directive about how the tyres should be run was causing plenty of controversy.
If it were to have an impact on the competitive order it was expected to hamper those who were pushing the limits in recent weeks, but Max Verstappen’s pole had thrown that into doubt given he was one of the drivers to suffer a failure in Baku. Red Bull still had serious pace.
It couldn’t really have been any better set-up. Verstappen on pole, Hamilton alongside him, both with a rear-gunner, each capable of winning races themselves. This was to be a straight fight in front of 15,000 in France.
And when the lights went out, the fight took two quick twists. Verstappen looked to have the lead retained into Turn One, but a snap of oversteer sent him into the run-off area and he cut Turn Two, in turn handing track position to Hamilton.
Verstappen was perhaps caught out by a lack of grip after heavy morning rain had washed the track clear of the weekend’s rubber, but pretty soon he wasn’t going to be the only one.
“The balance is a disaster,” Pierre Gasly radioed in on lap five.
“These tyres are… I don’t think they’re going to last as long as you expect them to,” Hamilton added a lap later. Whether it was down to the increased pressures or green track, the planned one-stop strategy was under threat.
“I think nobody, even us, expected to undercut Lewis.”
So Mercedes tried to force Red Bull’s hand and, with Valtteri Bottas shadowing the two leaders closely, it pulled the Finn in for his stop on the early side, 17 laps into the race. Verstappen replied a lap later and stayed ahead, and then a curious set of circumstances played out.
Hamilton responded one lap after Verstappen to cover off the undercut, and he had a 3.2-second lead before the Red Bull driver had stopped. Mercedes did a great job in the pit lane by gaining Hamilton another 0.1sec over Verstappen’s tyre change, but it wasn’t enough as the championship leader could force his way down the inside and into the lead at Turn One.
“It was a good pit stop, a great effort by the lads,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know, I’ll have to go back and look into it. I was definitely down on my in-lap, my tyres were getting worse. Not really much more to add…”
Hamilton did lose time in the pitlane itself, but not so much that you’d have expected him to lose the lead.
“My out lap was good, but I didn’t expect the undercut to be so big,” Verstappen said. “When I went out, suddenly I had so much more grip on the tyres everywhere. I don’t know how fast how Lewis’ stop was or whatever, I need to look at it again. But I think nobody, even us, expected to undercut Lewis.
“So it clearly shows that with new tyres, the tricky conditions out there, when you are on used tyres it’s easier to lose the car a little bit or whatever because of the wind.
“When you have new tyres, you have one lap where it feels a lot better. As soon as I was ahead, the next few laps, they didn’t feel great anymore.”
That much was clear, as Verstappen couldn’t drop the Mercedes pair and the three ran line astern for a number of laps. At the same time, Sergio Perez ran longer – having not been quite on the back of the top three – in one of his trademark tyre management races.
But Hamilton wasn’t done, pushing Verstappen hard and staying within DRS range. That meant the pace was quicker than the frontrunners wanted, and Red Bull made a brave call by pitting for a second time from the lead on lap 32 and backing Verstappen to chase down his rival.
“Lewis was giving it all to try and come by, so it was not easy to keep him behind. We opted to go for the two-stop, and I was like ‘OK well, let’s see if it’s going to work out’. You never know around here. Then the backmarkers were also not making it easy to clear them and gain a lot of time every lap.”
The gap was over 18 seconds with 20 laps to go, and Verstappen had to jump both Mercedes drivers. He reeled in Bottas and with nine laps to go the Finn was forced to go defensive, running deep into the chicane after blocking the inside and allowing Verstappen to get through on the exit, much to the Finn’s anger.
“Why the f**k does nobody listen to me when I say it’s going to be a two-stopper?” Bottas complained. “F***ing hell.”
Hamilton pegged the gap for a few laps through traffic before Verstappen erased a five-second deficit, and started the penultimate lap in striking distance.
In the same spot as Bottas had defended, Verstappen made the move stick using DRS down the inside to snatch a late lead and victory.
“As soon as I was getting closer, I could see the tyres Lewis was on, they were really worn and there was not much left. As soon as I got in the DRS, the top speed with the wing level we chose, I think it was a fairly easy pass. Having fresher tyres… it worked out, but it was very tight.”
Hamilton’s defence was not as robust as you might expect so late in the race, but he felt like a sitting duck after such a long stint on old rubber.
“Firstly there’s marbles on the inside, so I didn’t want to make my tyres any worse than they already were. He had the DRS open, if he didn’t pass me there he would have passed me on the straight afterwards so it made zero difference. And I had no front end so he would have got me either way, so it was pointless to defend any harder. I think you saw what happened with Valtteri, just ended up going straight on, so there’s no point messing up the tyres any more.
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“The two-stop would have potentially have done the job, but the two-stop was not on the cards at all for us, so we’ll do some analysis and try to figure out why.
“It’s not gut-wrenching at all. We did a great job today and it just didn’t work out, so I’m not massively disappointed. I think I did the best job I could today, of course there were things that we could probably have done slightly better but overall they’ve been quicker than us all weekend, so it’s a true reflection of the pace they have.”
Perez did exactly what Red Bull brought him in for, providing a different kind of threat and eventually clearing Bottas around the outside into Signes to give the team its first double podium of the season and 41 from a maximum of 44 points after Verstappen’s fastest lap.
“It was quite tricky because we were reaching the lapped cars, with the DRS and the traffic ahead it was pretty hard,” Perez said. “I went around him into Turn 10. I was already ahead, I tried to give him as much room as possible so that meant I went off the track. I came back and basically I had no advantage as the move was already done and it was mainly done to give him room and to avoid any possible contact at that point.”
Alonso’s struggles would only be for one stint as he recovered to eighth, pushing Gasly all the way to the flag after Ricciardo undercut the AlphaTauri to beat both to sixth, but Leclerc’s only got worse.
Ferrari had no race pace to speak of and faded rapidly, even a two-stop strategy not saving Leclerc who ended up 16th in a race where nobody retired. That Norris took a strong fifth – let through by Ricciardo – to give McLaren third in the constructors’ back will be disappointing, but the fact George Russell outraced him comfortably to end up 12th and within striking distance of Sainz ahead will be worrying.
That was a performance of note for Williams to finish so high without any attrition, though strong drives from Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll – ninth and tenth respectively, the latter from 19th on the grid – meant points were never overly realistic.
But maybe any hopes Russell has of finally scoring for Williams will have been strengthened by today’s performance, just as our own of a title race that ebbs and flows right to the wire have been by another dramatic battle between the two main protagonists.