D he first GP France since 2008 could have been a monotonous procession. Everything for it was arranged. A starting grid with the favorites at the top, a track layout that offered little chance of overtaking, and tires that lasted long enough to make a stop over the distance.
Kimi Räikkönen drove on his set Ultrasoft from the start to lap 34. The only thing that limited the life of the tires was wear. For some drivers, the tread on the left front tire ended up being dangerously thin. Lance Stroll was exaggerating the game. With four laps to go, his left front tire burst in the Signes corner of all places. 50 meters of asphalt caught him. The Soft set had 47 laps on the tread.
Headwind helped when overtaking
Two circumstances made the French GP an entertaining race despite all prophecies of doom. Sebastian Vettel tore himself and Valtteri Bottas out of the race at the start. When the safety car turned into the pit lane on lap 5, the two co-favorites were in 17th and 18th place.
Their race to catch up enhanced the Grand Prix. Within the next 15 laps, Vettel sniffed 11 competitors and was again fifth. Bottas took longer. Its underbody was badly damaged around the left rear wheel. That cost sealing and thus downforce. The Mercedes driver had to relocate his overtaking maneuvers in the winding passages. Because traction had suffered, he couldn't really catch up at the beginning of the straight. On lap 20 Bottas was only 10th.
It was frightening how effortlessly Vettel and Bottas plowed through the field. Nothing shows the two-class society better than its catch-up race. But there was a second reason why the overtaking rate was significantly higher than the pilots had predicted: a strong headwind was blowing on the Mistral straight. That put the person in front at a disadvantage twice. He got all the wind off, and the pursuer had DRS too. The attacker drove past on the second part of the straight as if the vehicle in front was parking.
The side races showed how decisive the wind factor was. On Saturday hardly anyone overtook in the dry phases. It was the rain that spiced up the show. On Sunday, the Formula 2 race was haywire too.
Mercedes fast on all three tires
Lewis Hamilton would also have the strongest headwindcan't stop. On the first lap after the safety car, the world champion ensured clear conditions and set off from Max Verstappen by 1.2 seconds. The Dutchman never got into the winner's DRS area. Both drove with the same tactics: super soft at the start, soft at the end. Red Bull stopped earlier, but the attempt at the undercut failed. After Verstappen switched to soft tires, Hamilton pulled his teeth with a series of record laps.
Like in Barcelona, Mercedes was a bank. The car worked on all three types of tires. Red Bull, on the other hand, kept its fingers around Ultrasoft. “We can't get the balance right with the tire. For us, the soft is the best racing tire, ”cursed the drivers. With that, their tactics were set in stone. Verstappen also had a quiet race. Just as Daniel Ricciardo Boden caught up with the two men at the front, two flaps broke off on the left side of the front wing. And later right again. Ricciardo was easy prey for Kimi Raikkonen.
Vettel had to win Start against Bottas
The title race is a ping-pong game , in which the track layout, the range of tires and technology upgrades determine the sequence. This time Mercedes pulled the Joker out of its pocket. 10 HP more power, aero modifications in the invisible area, better organized processes and Pirelli's special tires with thinner treads brought the Silver Arrows forward and Ferrari lagged behind. 'Decide the little things', stated Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
It is pointless to calculate where Sebastian Vettel would have ended up if he had made it through the first corner safely. His only chance would have been an attack in the first two laps before the chicane, but then he would have lacked the DRS advantage. The pace that Hamilton set right at the beginning would have been difficult to equalize even for Ferrari Ultrasoft tires.
Already on the third flying lap, the gap opened in favor of the Supersoft rubbers. You could see it in Carlos Sainz, who was able to keep up with Verstappen for the first two laps after the safety car,but then suddenly lost 2 seconds per lap.
Vettel would have finished second even with an optimistic extrapolation. But for that he would have had to beat Bottas at the start. That is probably why it was so important to him to be ahead of the second Mercedes in the first corner. Vettel and Räikkönen drove on different tires than the Mercedes and Red Bull for the entire race. So there is no comparability. The projections by Mercedes showed a lead of a tenth per lap in a normal race. So not much. The pendulum can swing quickly again.
Like Red Bull, Ferrari was at war with one type of tire. As if one had suspected it, Ferrari only ordered 3 sets of soft tires. Two for Raikkonen, one for Vettel. The Reds planned the race with the combination supersoft-ultrasoft and saw their only chance against Mercedes in always driving on the softer tire. Vettel drove his single sentence Soft only out of embarrassment. After the collision with Bottas at the start, Ferrari saw only one way out: driving through on the hardest mixture.
Therefore, Vettel and Bottas had to pit
The plan failed because the left front tire was wearing too much. From lap 34 onwards, Vettel's lap times fell sharply and rose to over 1.37 minutes. Fortunately, the direct opponent Bottas had the same problems. With a gap of 23 seconds it was not out of the pit stop window. But Bottas also had to pit. “The left front tire lost a lot of temperature. And it started to vibrate. A sure sign that there wasn't a lot of rubber left on the canvas, ”explained the engineers. When Bottas was called to the pits, the way to change tires was clear for Vettel as well.
Vettel fell into a free hole, Bottas behind Carlos Sainz, Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne. Bottas lost 6.3 seconds during the pit stop because the car slipped off the jack. He would have fallen behind Sainz and Magnussen even without the mishap, but not 7 seconds behind which he had to catch up again. Sainzcleared a defect on the MGU-K from the track, Vandoorne still had to pit. The speed of a battered Mercedes was not enough for a HaasF1 in top form.
Räikkönen was waiting for the safety car
Lewis Hamilton gave a lead lap. The time of the pit stop was set on lap 33 for two reasons. First, he was comfortably ahead of Verstappen with 30.6 seconds. The pit stop window was 25 seconds. Second, it was clear that Kimi Raikkonen would not be driving much longer. The Finn had been complaining about his degrading tires for several laps on the radio. And for him, even in the duel with the Red Bull drivers, the hope for a safety car slowly vanished. That was the only reason why Ferrari kept him on the track for so long
When Ferrari asked Raikkonen to change tires on lap 34, if he had been neutralized, he would not have been on the track before Verstappen and Ricciardo. In order not to lose any more time on Red Bull, Ferrari had to act. Hamilton would have had an easy game against the Finn on the track. In the end he only drove lap times of 1.36.5 minutes.
Tactically, there wasn't much to be gained at the French GP. The one-stopers pitted between laps 25 and 37. The order before that was the same as after, if you deduct the overtaking maneuvers on the track in the laps in between. Renault secured Sainz with an anticipated undercut against Kevin Magnussen and tried Nico Hülkenberg with an overcut. Which didn't work either.
Magnussen had no great hopes of overtaking Sainz on the track anyway. “Sainz was a tad faster in the race,” admitted team principal Guenther Steiner. The defect devil rushed to help HaasF1. Sainz lost the MGU-K in the final laps. Like Ricciardo in Monte Carlo. With this problem you are fair game in Paul Ricard.