Bottas bounces his way to the top spot in FP1: 2021 French Grand Prix practice round-up
Valtteri Bottas kicked off his weekend in fine style, ending FP1 fastest of all from team-mate Lewis Hamilton
Thirty-eight-year-old pole position man Kimi Räikkönen was between a rock and a hard place, on the track and off, poised for victory in a Ferrari at Monza. It was lap 21, he’d been brought in from a few metres ahead of a closely pursuing Lewis Hamilton who, in response, had stayed out for hammer time. Räikkönen, on his fresh tyres, had to prevent Hamilton getting that gap out to over 24sec (the pitstop time loss).
“Kimi push, this is critical,” he was told. So he pushed, reducing the gap to 22.5sec on next lap. His new softs were sufficiently faster than Hamilton’s old super-softs. He looked to have it under control.
If only he’d left it at that, he might’ve won. If only the team had instructed him then to ease off by 0.5sec or so and protect the new tyres when they were at their most vulnerable – with lots of heat-creating tread and around 60kg of fuel still on board. But he continued pressing on for another six laps, by which time the gap was down to 18.3sec, around 6sec more than what was needed to retain position after Hamilton pitted on lap 28. By which time the ugly blister on Räikkönen’s left-rear was already visible. It was that blister that would later make Räikkönen easy meat for an inspired Hamilton.
Partly Ferrari had beaten itself – at least twice. Once on Saturday and another after lap 21 of the race. The rest of it was Hamilton at his prey-hunting best, forcing this defeat upon them by applying maximum pressure and watching their weak points develop into fissures – like those around the circumference of Räikkönen’s tyre.
The Mercedes, consistently trailing the Ferrari by a couple of tenths through Friday and Saturday, looked for all the world like it may have been the faster car on Sunday. But on race day we didn’t have Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari with which to compare. He took himself out of contention on the opening lap with an awkward defence from Hamilton’s attack at the second chicane, while trying to ensure he didn’t make contact with a defensive Räikkönen.
Why was the title-chasing Vettel having to pull his punches racing a team-mate? Because that team-mate is believed to have triggered a ‘no team orders’ clause by qualifying on pole. So surely, under the circumstances, Ferrari might have enlisted Räikkönen to the cause? Well, with no 2019 contract yet, why would Räikkönen want to do that? Hence the rock and hard place he’d been placed in off-track.
So up at the Roggia chicane on the opening lap Vettel succeeded in not hitting Räikkönen but not in avoiding contact with Hamilton, which spun the Ferrari around, removed its right-hand barge boards, damaged the floor and sent him pitting for a new front wing. “It was horrible to drive after that,” reported Vettel, “with sudden snaps. I hadn’t realised how badly damaged it was until I climbed out and saw it.”
He made a damage-recovery drive to fourth behind the Mercedes of Bottas, who did a perfect Hamilton-support job by staying out long in the first stint, holding up Räikkönen as required and forcing him to use those tyres even more.
This just might have been a crucial swing point in the destiny of the title. With Hamilton’s point advantage out to 30, second places to a faster Ferrari in many of the remaining races wouldn’t be a particular drama. Not that Hamilton’s going to be settling for seconds. He could’ve done that here, after all.
“We’ll talk later,” said Vettel upon being informed he’d qualified only second, 0.161sec slower than team-mate Räikkönen.
Vettel has a lot on his plate as he tries to close down the points deficit to Hamilton. As Christian Horner recently suggested, Vettel is ‘Ferrari’s rock’. For all the technical ingenuity behind the team that’s produced F1’s fastest car this year, it’s still operationally suspect – and Vettel takes it upon himself to orchestrate it through a Grand Prix weekend. Hence the occasionally terse radio messages about strategy or, as in Spa, ‘lift the car up, for f**k’s sake, you’ll crush the floor.’ This extra responsibility cannot fail to clutter his head and in turn apply its own pressure. The persistent pattern of Vettel errors at Ferrari in the last couple of seasons are totally at odds with his performances when at Red Bull, where all he had to do was drive. Pretty much as Hamilton has to do at Mercedes now.
The final Q3 runs were a case in point. It was Räikkönen’s turn this weekend to be the second car out – and therefore be the towed rather than the tower. Vettel’s status as title-chaser has not changed that procedure. He didn’t have a problem with that. That wasn’t what he wanted to talk about ‘later’. It was the delay in them getting him ready in time, thereby preventing him from getting out on Hamilton’s tail – and getting the tow from the Mercedes, as planned. That delay allowed Carlos Sainz’s Renault to get between them and by the time Seb had fought his way past that, Hamilton’s car was well out of towing reach. But conversely, he was positioned perfectly to tow Räikkönen – to what turned out to be pole.
Irritated perhaps, distracted certainly, Vettel by his own admission got too ragged on that final lap. “It wasn’t good at the first chicane, the second chicane, the Lesmos – everywhere basically! I’m lucky I stayed second rather than third.” As for the operational shortfall, he wasn’t up for talking about it, but later allowed: “I addressed the people concerned and made my point.”
As for how this impacted upon his race plan, Vettel was quite revealing: “If Kimi’s on pole, I guess he’s allowed to fight for the win,” he said in what is believed to have been a reference to the terms of Räikkönen’s contract, just as when Kimi had set pole at Monaco last year. Given that Räikkönen’s contract extension had not been announced this weekend, against expectations, the dynamics of this were particularly fascinating. “It’s nice to do it here in front of the tifosi,” Räikkönen said, “but this is just half the job. I’ll be trying my hardest to make sure I’m in the same position tomorrow.”
Räikkönen’s average speed, incidentally, was 163.785mph, the single fastest lap in F1 history, eclipsing Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2004 benchmark.
Vettel’s ragged lap was just enough to keep him ahead of Hamilton. “They’ve had the edge all weekend,” Hamilton said in resignation, “and I knew it was going to take something special to beat them.” He was actually marginally fastest in the first Q3 runs but ultimately the Merc was just not quite as quick through the middle sector. He benefitted a little from the tow of team-mate Bottas, who lined up fourth 0.35sec behind but a full second faster than Max Verstappen’s Red Bull, which had switched to the new C-spec Renault engine without penalty. Team-mate Ricciardo, having gone over his seasonal allocation in having the C-spec fitted, was set to be starting from the back and after graduating from Q1 took no further part.
Romain Grosjean this time set the ‘Class B’ pole, the potent Ferrari-powered Haas within 0.3sec of Verstappen’s trimmed-out Red Bull. This was after a close squeak in only just scraping through to Q2 after a scruffy final Q1 lap. Kevin Magnussen didn’t get the sister Haas through to Q3, lining up 11th after an altercation on the final crowded Q2 runs with his frequent nemesis Fernando Alonso. On the out lap, in a queue of cars, Magnussen had dived down Alonso’s inside into Parabolica, rather messing up their preparation for the flying lap. In retaliation, Alonso slipstreamed the Haas down the pit straight and went around its outside into the first chicane, ensuring both were further delayed. This followed from their niggles at Paul Ricard and (several times) Silverstone. They are not in a mutual fan club… Magnussen’s first lap, without any slipstream, was only one hundredth shy of making Q3.
Filling out Q3 behind Grosjean were: Carlos Sainz’s Renault, Esteban Ocon’s Force India, Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso and Lance Stroll’s Williams.
After switching to a higher downforce rear wing on the eve of qualifying, Sainz pulled a terrific final lap out the bag after getting the tow (from team-mate Hülkenberg) just right. That was Hulk’s only function in Q2 as he was taking a 10-place penalty for initiating the Spa accident and so took an engine change penalty too and didn’t bother completing the lap.
The Force India might have been expected to have been ahead of the Renault on a track demanding low drag above all else, and Esteban Ocon had been a couple of tenths faster than Sainz in Q2, but admitted he wasn’t quite able to maximise the tow in Q3, lining him up eighth. That was at least better than Sergio Pérez in the other car, who failed to get out of Q1 after the team under-estimated how much track improvement there would be as he remained in the garage to save a set of tyres, thinking they were already fast enough.
Pierre Gasly was another to over-deliver after getting the Q2 tow just right in his Toro Rosso. Illustrating the margins, he was only a hundredth faster than team-mate Brendon Hartley in graduating from Q1, but then made Q3. That was the difference between ninth and 18th places.
Under the canopy of the old trees they raced, with twitches and shimmies through the turns with their skinny downforce-light wings
Stroll got a Williams into Q3 for the first time all season. It was better relative to the pack than usual because of the proportion of the lap the cars are on the straights where it was losing less time than it usually loses through the turns. He drove a genuinely impressive Q2 lap, this at the same venue where he qualified fourth a year ago. Team-mate Sergey Sirotkin had even better underlying pace but didn’t put the Q2 slipstream together and ended up 12th. “It’s been all about slipstreams and how you get them, which car you’re behind and how much of a gap you leave to them in front. I think when you concentrate so much on this it can affect the car balance and how it’s performing at different parts of the track. I think we lost a bit of the base performance and, honestly, I think we lost a lot more time. In my last run, the slipstream I got wasn’t optimal. It was a pure time loss in some areas and I was getting a different corner balance, so the car was here, there and everywhere.”
Alonso, in the brick-like McLaren, was only 13th after his contretemps with Magnussen but out-paced the sister car of Stoffel Vandoorne, which was a couple of tenths slower and solid last. Sauber’s Charles Leclerc dropped a wheel in the Lesmo 1 gravel on the crucial Q1 lap and didn’t make it into Q2, only 17th. Team-mate Marcus Ericsson was a couple of tenths and a couple of places back in a rebuilt car after a monumental accident on Friday afternoon, caused by the DRS not closing as he stood on the brakes for the first chicane. The car turned sharp left at 213mph, hitting the barrier, then barrel rolling after tripping over its tethered front wheels.
For pre-race atmospherics this was one of the sport’s special ones. A Grand Prix at Monza is always momentous, but a front row lock-out at a crucial phase of the Scuderia’s title challenge made it something beyond just that. The ancient place has seen so many dramas but with the heat haze rising from the scarlet cars distorting the view of the silver ones behind, the whole place crowded in by humanity, all those eyes upon the gantry lights… well, it was something a little out of the ordinary.
Vettel’s initial getaway from the inside was slightly better than Räikkönen’s, who had to ease right to block his momentum, with Hamilton flicking right of them both to take a tentative look at the inside of the chicane entry. Räikkönen locked up briefly but retained the lead. Vettel had to get defensive on the left-handed exit to keep Hamilton behind, and they actually nudged wheels slightly, left-rear to right-front, and this all played to Räikkönen’s advantage as he accelerated flat-out through the gears towards Curva Grande with clear track in front of him. But he was punching a nice big hole in the air at these speeds, sucking along Vettel and Hamilton in his wake.
Verstappen was immediately in front of a very conservative Bottas into turn one to run fourth. Grosjean also nipped past the Mercedes into there. Down near the back, Hartley had been pincered by Vandoorne and Hülkenberg, leaving him with a front wheel hanging off and forcing an instant retirement.
Wolff: “It looks like that the performance [Ferrari] are able to deploy on one lap is maybe not something that they can replicate throughout the race.”
As the two red cars and their silver chaser rushed up to the Roggia chicane, Vettel seemed caught in a positional no man’s land between attacking Räikkönen and defending Hamilton. When Räikkönen then defensively backed off early, it forced Vettel to do the same to avoid two Ferraris crashing each other out on the first lap of the Italian Grand Prix. “Yes, I had to get out of it otherwise it would have been a nasty one,” as Vettel summarised it. Räikkönen was racing hard, with no quarter given against his team-mate. He didn’t look like a man who’d just agreed a multi-million deal with the team for 2019, but rather more like someone determined to do himself justice. Did Räikkönen’s on-track attitude surprise Seb? “No,” he replied, before making it clear he had no argument with his team-mate. “I would probably have raced the same in his position.”
Movements behind the scenes seemed to impact upon the team’s on-track weekend at Monza.
As Vettel was forced to back off, Hamilton – with the instinct of a racer and the assurance of a comfortable points leader – pounced around the outside and sat it out. Vettel refused to back out of it and they touched. Vettel’s right-front hit hard enough into the side of the Mercedes that it was the Ferrari that spun, making further contact with the Merc as it did so, damaging Vettel’s front wing and plucking off the right-hand barge boards. The Ferrari was facing backwards as the field sped by, before spin-turning to rejoin.
Hamilton had suffered a little twitch but was otherwise undisturbed. “I think it was a risky manoeuvre,” said Vettel afterwards of Hamilton. “It could have easily have resulted in him spinning, not me.” Hamilton afterwards said he was proud of the move, but added that if he’d been in Vettel’s position at that point he’d have done exactly the same as Seb did.
Sainz clattered across the second Roggia kerbs to relieve Ocon of second in ‘Class B’. Bottas passed the ‘Class B’ leader Grosjean between the Lesmos to reclaim fifth. Then the race came under the safety car to clear Hartley’s wrecked Toro Rosso. This minimised Vettel’s time loss to the pack as he limped in for a new nose. Hülkenberg, Ricciardo and Ericsson used the safety car as an opportunity to change tyre compounds. Most of the field had started on the super-soft. It was the fastest tyre and the degradation rates of all three were very low. Magnussen, Leclerc, Ericsson and Ricciardo had started on the soft. It was set to be a standard one-stopper, albeit with a very wide window of around 10 laps because of the low degradation rates. The only slight tyre-related concern was with blistering of the left-rear. On these low-downforce Monza wings, the cars slide significantly more than usual and the very high wheel rotation speeds are retained for a long time without much respite. Teams were monitoring tyre temperatures even more closely than usual.
The safety car came in at the end of the third lap. Räikkönen began to accelerate as he exited the Ascari chicane, but then thought better of it. That allowed Hamilton to be tight on his tail as Räikkönen eventually pulled the trigger going into Parabolica. It was as if the Mercedes was magnetised to the Ferrari as they entered flat out onto the pit straight, both on full aggressive restart engine modes, but Hamilton with the benefit of the tow. He popped out to the outside before the braking zone and turned in to take the lead. Räikkönen shrewdly surrendered early and concentrated on getting a better exit, so as to tow the Mercedes up to Roggia. He timed this perfectly and stuck the Ferrari aggressively around Hamilton’s outside to return the favour and retake the lead – to the roaring approval of the crowd.
Under the canopy of the old trees they raced, with twitches and shimmies through the turns with their skinny downforce-light wings. Sainz and Magnussen had each separately taken to the Roggia escape lane and rejoined. Magnussen did so in front of Pérez, who had much more momentum than the Haas as they approached Lesmo 1, and the Mexican dived down the inside. Magnussen refused to surrender and side-by-side they went until they reached an inevitable point of contact, which heavily damaged the Haas’ bodywork, forcing him to lose a lap for repairs. Verstappen had held off a conservative Bottas to retain third, and Grosjean retained his lead of the second class while Sainz and Ocon scrapped just ahead of Stroll, Sirotkin, Alonso, Gasly, Pérez, Leclerc, Vandoorne, and then the lap one pitters.
Ricciardo and Vettel were on the move from the back and would be quickly picking off cars in the ‘Class B’ train before too long. Alonso had departed from this train shortly before they arrived there, retiring the McLaren after a sudden lack of power. Vettel got past Ricciardo onto the pit straight, taking care to block the inside from a Ricciardo counter-attack. From there, and despite the bodywork damage and resultant ill handling, the Ferrari made faster progress than the Red Bull, which would later go out with a suspected clutch-related failure.
Up front, Hamilton was doing just enough to stay within around 1sec of Räikkönen. The apparent pace advantage of the Ferrari from Friday and Saturday seemed to have disappeared, Hamilton was able to track Räikkönen at will while also taking care of his tyres. “I don’t want to be too definitive,” said Toto Wolff, “especially because we didn’t see Vettel perform today in a car without damage, but yes it looks like that the performance [Ferrari] are able to deploy on one lap is maybe not something that they can replicate throughout the race.”
The pair were pulling ever-further clear of Verstappen, who continued to thwart Bottas’ efforts until the latter was instructed to back off and economise on his tyres. His position back there, 10sec adrift of the lead by the 20th lap, placed him in a potentially useful strategic role for Hamilton.
The pitstop window was now open, in that it was late enough into the 53-lap race that a new set of tyres could now get you to the finish, and Mercedes had guided Hamilton into getting as close as possible to Räikkönen to apply the pressure. On the 20th lap the Mercedes crew were out in the pit apron ready for a stop and Hamilton was instructed to do the opposite of whatever Räikkönen did. Ferrari had no real choice but to pit Räikkönen at this point. Had they not done so, Mercedes would’ve brought Hamilton in and likely have undercut Räikkönen out of the lead.
Instead, with Kimi pitting and getting underway on a new set of softs, Hamilton was told it was ‘hammer time’ and that he should let rip. He upped his pace by 1sec and Mercedes watched to see what Räikkönen could do on his new tyres. The answer came back quickly enough – he could go even faster.
He exited 22.5sec behind new leader Hamilton. He needed not to let that gap grow to 24sec otherwise Hamilton could exit ahead after stopping. Räikkönen matched the Merc’s pace on the first lap out, then eclipsed it to set the fastest lap of the race so far. As it was realised on the Mercedes pitwall that Hamilton could not overcut his way into the lead, so he was told to back off and look after his tyres. He took particular care not to push hard through the Lesmos as the team decided to extend his stint for as long as possible – so as to give him a bigger new tyre grip advantage later on.
This is where the race went badly wrong for Räikkönen and Ferrari. He was allowed to keep banging in the fast laps, without apparent guidance. It was completely needless. That 22.5sec gap came down to 18sec within the next six laps – 6sec more than was needed. With the car still relatively heavily loaded with fuel and the plentiful tread making the tyre at its most susceptible to retaining too much heat, the blistering process began inside the compound of the left-rear. Once the blisters appear on the surface, it’s invariably too late – and the process has often already reached a runaway state.
There was a further complication for Räikkönen too: Mercedes had left Bottas out so as to run interference with Räikkönen’s race. As the newer-tyred Ferrari quickly caught him, Bottas placed his car defensively for several laps, delaying Räikkönen and giving Hamilton less of a gap to close after stopping for his softs on lap 28. Such was Bottas’ old-tyre pace that Hamilton was soon right upon the back of Räikkönen and for a few laps Bottas-Räikkönen-Hamilton formed a high-speed jinking stalemate, with occasional failed DRS runs down to turn one, from either Räikkönen on Bottas or Hamilton on Räikkönen.
Bottas finally pitted after 36 laps. His long stint had prevented him doing anything about Verstappen who had pitted 10 laps earlier. Valtteri came out still in fourth and closed down on the Red Bull, the pair now more than 20sec adrift of the lead battle.
Vettel meanwhile had made good progress. It was initially hoped that the new softs that had been pitted on his lap one repair stop might get him to the end. This proved optimistic and he pitted from fifth on lap 29 and was fitted with new super-softs. Although this dropped him a few places, it was behind only a few closely-bunched ‘Class B’ cars that he quickly picked off – invariably with DRS assistance into turn one, until he was closing down on the Verstappen/Bottas battle.
In ‘Class B’ Grosjean remained in command. Ocon had emerged in ‘second in class’ after fighting his way back past Sainz – and had remained out for a long first stint, hoping to use his gentler tyre usage to try an overcut on Grosjean. But he never got anywhere close enough and was still several seconds behind after pitting on lap 36. Pérez used a long stint to leapfrog his way past cars of lesser performance to emerge ahead even of Sainz, after the latter’s even longer stint. Some way behind, Stroll and Sirotkin continued a respectable run for Williams and remained ahead of Leclerc, Vandoorne, Hülkenberg (who had to bale out of an attempt at getting to the end on the tyres fitted on lap one), Gasly, Ericsson and the badly-delayed Magnussen.
The blistering around the left-rear of Räikkönen became increasingly ugly as Hamilton tracked him. But a lock-up onto turn one for the Mercedes driver had given a significant flat-spot on his left-front. He wasn’t going to let that stop him with the scent of victory in the air. They were far enough ahead of the others by lap 40 that they could have stopped for fresh tyres and quickly found a way past Bottas and Verstappen – but were prevented from doing so by the sure-fire knowledge that whichever of them did it, the other would stay out. They were mutually locking themselves into staying out and slogging it out on their damaged tyres. But the Ferrari’s rubber was in considerably worse shape than the Merc’s.
Bottas meanwhile got a good DRS tow going on Verstappen on the 43rd lap into turn one. He went for the outside but Verstappen squeezed him out – until there was no room left and the Merc’s front right hit the left-front of the Red Bull, half-spinning Bottas and forcing him to take to the escape road. The Red Bull driver would later be given a 5sec penalty to be added onto his time for the incident. As Bottas closed back up he engaged him in battle again and this allowed Vettel to get to within the 5sec penalty range of Verstappen too.
As Räikkönen suffered ever-more with his left-rear so he was slow through Parabolica, allowing Hamilton on the 44th lap to get a nicely-timed DRS run. It had been inevitable for some time that the hunter was going to pounce as the prey tired – and now it happened, the Merc going clean around the Ferrari’s outside into the first chicane. Räikkönen remained very clean and made no attempt to barge wheels or block. Once through, Hamilton pulled easily away and had the next eight laps to savour a great fighting victory. Ferrari had weakened itself with some of its key decisions through the weekend, but Hamilton had prised that weakness apart with a truly superb drive, one of his very best.
Although Verstappen crossed the line third, his penalty ensured Bottas and Vettel were officially third and fourth. There was post-race controversy, too, when Grosjean’s sixth-place, ‘Class B’ winning Haas was disqualified for running with a floor that did not conform to the prescribed dimensional requirements, giving Racing Point Force India an official sixth and seventh with Ocon and Pérez ahead of Sainz, Stroll and – taking his first point – Sirotkin.
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