Lewis Hamilton was untouchable at the first GP held in France for a decade, while Max Verstappen was a season-best second after Sebastian Vettel relinquished the series lead in dramatic fashion.
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After being soundly beaten by Ferrari in Canada, Mercedes brought the engine upgrade it delayed for Montreal to France, and the ‘Phase 2.1’ power plant paid immediate dividends when Lewis Hamilton took his third pole for the season, teammate Valtteri Bottas completing an all-Mercedes front row after the silver cars topped every practice session and all three periods of qualifying. Happy as Hamilton was to be 0.118secs ahead of Bottas, the four-time world champion felt his lap of 1min 30.029secs could have been better. “I always strive for perfection and there was some time left on the track, so I still have stuff to work on,” he said.
Championship leader Sebastian Vettel was next, but the German was three-tenths adrift of his main title rival as Ferrari appeared to have regressed from the highs of Canada. The first three were well ahead of the Red Bulls, Max Verstappen comfortably out-qualifying Daniel Ricciardo despite neither driver being thrilled with the performance of their car. Verstappen elected to run a lower downforce set-up the team likened to one you’d usually employ at a speed circuit like Spa-Francorchamps in a bid to get more pace down Paul Ricard’s lengthy back straight, but the Dutchman felt he hadn’t maximised the potential of his car. Ricciardo was less comfortable to roll the dice on a set-up he hadn’t really tried in practice, and was left hoping for rain or something that would shake the field up as he was concerned about being “a little slow” on the straights.
Well behind his Ferrari teammate (again) was Kimi Raikkonen in sixth, while the man most feel will take his drive at the Prancing Horse – and possibly as soon as next year – was the star of Saturday, Charles Leclerc hauling his Sauber into eighth with an extraordinary effort that drew praise from both Hamilton and Vettel, and one that came in the Swiss team’s first appearance in the top 10 since the 2015 Italian Grand Prix.
Romain Grosjean, still searching for his first points of 2018, was the best of the three French drivers in 10th, but caused a red flag in Q3 when he smashed his Haas into the Turn 3 fence.
Grosjean’s compatriots, Esteban Ocon (Force India, 11th) and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly (14th) fared less well, while Gasly’s teammate Brendon Hartley was condemned to start from the very back after his Honda engine needed to be replaced following Friday practice. Grosjean’s Haas stablemate Kevin Magnussen was ninth, but was first on the anger scale after Q3, when he felt Raikkonen’s ruined his best chance of a flying lap time. “He overtakes me into Turn 1, and f***s my lap, and doesn’t even complete his lap,” the Dane raged. “If you’re that confused, just try not to get in the way of anyone else.” If Magnussen was incensed, McLaren were downcast after both Fernando Alonso (16th) and Stoffel Vandoorne (18th) were eliminated in Q1, the team’s racing director Eric Boullier commenting “it’s up to us to give (Alonso and Vandoorne) a car that’s more representative of their talents”.
The main intrigue ahead of race day, the first GP held at the circuit in the south of France in 28 years, was whether the weather would spice up proceedings after it hosed down with rain in final practice on Saturday, and which front-running team had its tyre strategy right if the rain stayed away; both Mercedes would start the race on the slower but more durable supersoft tyres from the front of the grid, while Vettel, looking for a fast getaway from the second row, was on the initially faster but more brittle hypersoft rubber.
The race in exactly 69 words*
Hamilton reclaimed the world championship lead after an untroubled lights-to-flag win, aided by Vettel running into the back of Bottas at the first corner and seeing both cars pit immediately for repairs, the Ferrari given a five-second time penalty for the incident. Verstappen inherited second and stayed there to the end, Raikkonen rounding out the podium as Vettel recovered to fifth behind Ricciardo, who faded with front wing damage.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)
With a 60 per cent chance of precipitation predicted, it looked as though Ricciardo’s Sunday rain dance might have paid off, but the skies stayed dry and the Australian’s chances for a spot on the rostrum faded the longer the race went. Things started well for Ricciardo, who gained a place in the first-corner malee caused by Vettel tagging Bottas, and after the safety car period to clear the track, the Red Bull driver quickly disposed of the fast-starting Renault of Carlos Sainz to inherit third. An unimpeded Verstappen was well clear by that stage, but Ricciardo looked comfortable until he pitted on lap 29, returning to the track on soft tyres behind Vettel, who had pitted for the same rubber on lap one. It took Ricciardo four laps to get past his old teammate, and third remained a strong possibility until Raikkonen came at him hard in the closing stages on faster supersoft tyres, the Aussie’s chances not helped by front wing damage sustained when he ran over some debris while lapping backmarkers. The Ferrari driver eventually nosed ahead with six laps remaining at the chicane at the end of the back straight, but Ricciardo was under no pressure for fourth late after Vettel made a second stop on lap 41. The front wing damage certainly didn’t help, but this was a weekend where Verstappen had Ricciardo’s measure from Saturday onwards. The consolation prize for Ricciardo was that Bottas’ woes meant he re-took third in the championship, Ricciardo leaving France with 96 points for the season to Bottas’ 92.
“We had a lot less downforce and were understeering, so Kimi was always going to catch us with that pace,” Ricciardo said. “We were a wounded car from just before the first pitstop.”
What the result means
Canada perhaps didn’t paint the clearest picture of the F1 pecking order for the second part of the season, with Ferrari, Renault and Honda all introducing engine upgrades in Montreal while Mercedes (and its customer teams Force India and Williams) held off for France. Hamilton’s dominant win made that wait worth it, but we never got to see what loomed as an intriguing battle between Vettel and both Mercedes drivers on different tyre strategies after Vettel’s error at the first corner eliminated Hamilton’s only real rivals for the victory. Yes, Verstappen kept the Briton honest, but even Red Bull team boss Christian Horner conceded that his cars were no match for Mercedes as Hamilton eased to a seven-second victory. The momentum has ebbed and flowed over the past three races – all won from pole by three different drivers (Ricciardo in Monaco, Vettel in Canada and now Hamilton in France), but the extent of Hamilton’s dominance in France was ominous, even taking into account Vettel’s self-inflicted woes. And especially given where the championship heads next (see point 10 below) …
For historical purposes …
Circuit Paul Ricard may have been absent from the calendar for 28 years, but Sunday’s podium finishers continued a strange statistical anomaly at the French track. In the 14 previous races held at the circuit, 45 per cent of the podium finishers had started outside of the top three on the grid – and that percentage only increased when Verstappen (who started fourth) and Raikkonen (sixth) joined pole-sitter Hamilton on the rostrum.
The number to know
26: Hamilton’s first French success made Paul Ricard the 26th track on which he has won a Grand Prix, extending his record. He has at least one win at every circuit on the current calendar.
Third for Raikkonen wasn’t exactly beneath the radar, but it was the Ferrari driver’s first podium in four races as talk of his future gets ever-louder, and (remarkably) was his 25th podium since he last won a Grand Prix, way back in Australia to open the 2013 season. Sixth for Magnussen saw his season tally rise to 27 points (compared to zero, still, for Haas teammate Grosjean, who was 11th), while Leclerc hung tough after a difficult race to finish 10th and score for the third time in the past four races. Vettel could consider himself relatively happy with fifth too, considering he was in the pits at the end of the first lap with a broken front wing and facing a significant loss of points to Hamilton at the front of the title fight. Losing ‘just’ 15 points to the Mercedes driver was a save, of sorts. “My start was too good, then I ended up with nowhere to go,” he said.
The naughty corner
Bottas was the innocent party in the first-corner mess, but the Finn (albeit with a damaged floor) was 19 seconds behind Vettel at the end after both stopped at the same time for new tyres after the first lap. But the biggest losers at the French Grand Prix were the local drivers, Grosjean hitting Ocon on lap one and being given a five-second time penalty as he missed the points by just one place. At least he made it to the end; Ocon and fellow Frenchman Gasly barely lasted after the start, with Gasly tripping over Ocon at the Turn 3-4 chicane in an incident that saw both cars out on the spot. And spare a thought for Alonso, who crawled to a halt on the final lap with suspension damage to be the last car classified, seven days after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans …
Leg two of Formula One’s first-ever triple-header comes in just seven days’ time in Austria, where the Red Bull Ring will host round nine of the 21-round season. The bad news for anyone not driving a Mercedes? Austria has been a power track ever since it returned to the F1 fold in 2014 after an 11-year hiatus, and the Silver Arrows have won all four races, two victories for the now-retired Nico Rosberg, and one each for Hamilton (2016) and Bottas (last year).