23 Jun 2019
Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale
Ambient 27° Track 56° Humidity 39% Wind 1.5 m/s
Stunningly iconic skies ruled the French Grand Prix paddock, cerulean blue dotted by puffs of high clouds and the inevitable heat of Southern France torching the track and old timers swore they could hear the Pirelli rubber screaming for mercy as the cars were gently lowered to the scorching asphalt.... One stopper, Medium to Hard was the call from Pirelli as the quickest way around the circuit, and with an extra slow pitlane, all teams would be working hard to make that happen, helped by the fact that only 2 of the top 10, Giovinazzi and Gasly, would be starting on the Softs, the rest having made the Medium work for the passage to Q3.
McLaren and Renault seemed to be playing a bit in their own sandbox, but after yesterday's results perhaps the larger question was whether Macca could keep up with Red Bull, or would be once again dicing with Ricciardo for best of the rest. Much of that would be determined by the race to T1, plenty of time for those with a better launch improve their odds significantly and with T2 immediately after, plenty of chances for carnage as well, though odds are that they will be a bit better behaved than the F2 drivers that made an utter hash of their feature race at the start.
Managing tyre temperatures will be the order of the day, once the chaos of the start settles and it's worth remembering that Red Bull have a new wheel rim combo whilst Ferrari have had to change a number of parts on Vettel's car after problems were discovered post qualifying, significantly the intercooler oil pump, intercooler and radiators. With Vettel starting out of position in P7, Ricciardo was very much planning to try and ride his coattails up to a battle with the McLaren's and it would be a mistake to overlook Hulkenberg, starting on the Hards along with Raikkonen, Grosjean, Stroll and Kvyat, whose car is capable of more than his starting position indicates. Also worth remembering just how much the wind can affect the cars at this track, a fact attested to by not only the drivers, but the rather large number of offs seen throughout practice and qualifying....Of course at the front, it's all about who gets the jump through T1 and as ever, Ferrari will be hoping that Leclerc can at least get up amongst the Mercs at the start just to complicate their day ever so slightly....
Lights Out!!!! Great Start by Hamilton whilst Norris was balked by Verstappen as they were side by side. Sainz went outside and Norris inside and when he was forced to give way it was his teammate on the outside that gained the advantage. Vettel too wasted no time and bu the end of the first lap was already lining up Norris. Sainz hovered close to Verstappen but as they entered their second go round he had backed off, his race to get in front of the Red Bull effectively conceded as the team was clearly chasing a massive haul of midfield points.
Further back, Gasly had utterly failed to take any advantage of his Soft tyres at the start and still languished in P8 whilst Perez had gone straight on. Ricciardo had been, next to Albon, the biggest loser at the start and down to P10 with Albon down to P16, Ricciardo
Lap 5 and Vettel was still being held up by the remarkable McLaren, lingering in DRS but still unable to get by. The following lap he got the job done, though it took remarkably longer than perhaps Ferrari would've expected. Ricciardo dinged Giovinazzi for P9 and then Raikkonen was through as well, into the last points position.
Lap 8 and Vettel was now through Sainz, who had gradually been gapped from the lead group of 4, and that left him with 8 seconds up the road to Verstappen. Gasy had been closing in on Norris as well, about 2 seconds back as Giovinazzi was in to ditch his Soft tyres, the first to pit.
On replay it appeared that Perez did gain an advantage with his off, although it had yet to be announced as an investigation and Stroll was just inside Magnussen, chasing P13 and a bit of redemption from his qualifying performance. 5 second penalty for Perez for being naughty at the start and gaining an advantage. It did gain him 2 places so probably worth it in the long run.
At the front, it was clear Mercedes had the pace, with Leclerc now nearly 4.5 seconds back of Bottas who was hanging around 2.5 seconds back of Hamilton. Stroll finally got the job done at the end of lap 12 and Vettel was slowly eating into the gap to Verstappen, 6.5 seconds back and around 0.2 seconds faster. With the pit stop window lingering in the low 20s the next step for the sharp end was to look out for the undercut and it was Verstappen just a little more than 3 seconds back of Leclerc who looked best placed to try and make that happen. Hamilton radioed in something broke in his seat and there was much wild speculation about that, but despite the issue, he continued to rock in fast laps, having added another full second to his lead at the end of lap 15.
Albon rocked off a pass on Magnussen as the HAAS continued to just be either brilliant or miserable, with nothing in between. Today looked to be another miserable day and lap 17 and in he went, following, at some distance, Ricciardo. P16 for Danny Ric on the way out with a set of Hards that would now have to last him to the end. Magnussen was out dead last, also on the Hards, and now chasing down the Williams for practice. Russell, despite being faster, had been unable to get the job done on his teammate, and that battle was going to be the first one that Kmag was going to encounter.
Having cleared Ricciardo from his pit window, Gasly was in and out, just 1.5 seconds ahead of the Renault, who smelled blood in the water as Gasly tried to get his tyres up to temperature. And after a short chase it was done, Ricciardo by with ease and the rumour mill cranked up yet again. Sainz was in and out lap 19, just back of Albon and maintaining his best of the rest place, ahead of Kvyat who was on the hards and yet to pit. Norris had been caught behind him, but after a lap was able to get by and it was McLaren once again hurtling toward maximum midfield points....
Grosjean trailed Kvyat and they clearly were both in it for the long haul, as Ricciardo was 3 seconds back of the HAAS driver, who seemed to be doing a better job on the Hards. Verstappen was in then lap 21 and out on a set of Hards and the following lap Leclerc covered him off, which left Vettel now in P3, with Leclerc P4 and Verstappen P5.
Mercedes still sailed on, Hamilton an astonishing 8.5 seconds ahead of Bottas as it emerged that Verstappen's pit stop had been pushed by fear of an undercut by Vettel. Bang, with that gap Mercedes decided to pit Bottas first to keep ahead of Leclerc as the fresh tyred Ferrari had begun to make gains on the Mercedes. Lap 24 saw Lewis in, and it was serene, easily out and remarkable for being both so fast and looking so unhurried.
Vettel locked up and was in lap 26, with the freshest tyres of the lot and a long way to go. Given his lap time he probably would've preferred to run longer, but he was out 5 seconds back of Verstappen and the chase was on. In the midfield, Ricciardo had finally run up against the back of Grosjean and was making no headway, the 2 long runners just creating a bigger and bigger gap for the 2 McLarens on the other side of that barrier.
Lap 28 saw Ricciardo by Grosjean and now with another 3 seconds to Kvyat to get back before he could continue his chase of Norris. Kvyat would be a tougher nut to crack though, as he was running within a couple of tenths of Norris' pace. 2 laps on, and Leclerc was asked to push, presumably to chase Bottas who had about half a second on him. Mclaren were told to target 1:36.5 to get their tyres to last, 2 seconds off the pace being run at the front, which tell you everything you need to know about the difference between the midfield and the sharp end.
Lap 32 saw Grosjean and Raikkonen in for their Medium tyres. Raikkonen was out P12 and that brought Kvyat in. Hulkenberg, also running long knocked in a 1:35.611 in an attempt to nick a place from Raikkonen with the overcut. Kvyat back out P16, just ahead of the HAAS runners as he got to grips with the remainder of his race, which consisted immediately of Giovinazzi just ahead. Having been ignored for entirely too long, Hamilton radioed in that his tyres didn't feel as good as the previous set. Giovinazzi was in and out as was Hulkenberg. Hulkenberg was out behind Raikkonen, as despite his clever driving he was unable to clear the Alfa so they decided to run him a few extra laps to give him a tyre offset instead...
This left Stroll in P6 as the last runner on track without a pitstop and with a gap of 7 seconds to Sainz behind, they were probably going to run him until he was caught so as to give him the freshest tyres at the end. Norris was getting frustrated stuck behind his teammate and he formally requested that Sainz pick up the pace as he could plainly see Ricciardo in the mirrors, looming 4 seconds back.
Lap 39 and it was Gasly, with Hulkenberg and then Raikkonen ahead, with all the hard work to do as once Stroll pitted, he would be P11 and pointless, in the sense that he would have no points in P11 unless he could take Hulkenberg.
Stroll was in and then drama, as Norris was told he no longer had DRS as Macca was "managing a small issue"..... begging the question of what exactly that issue was. Enquiring minds and all that. Stroll was out P13 and off they went on lap 42. Hmm a close up of Hamilton's tyres did show them looking a bit gnarly, particularly the front left. That didn't stop him from going fast and Norris complained of really aggressive upshifts, which his engineer said was part of the issue. That sounded like a potential hydraulic issue as Stroll with his fresh tyres was closing down Perez in P12.
With little track action left the calculators were out and Hamilton was told that Vettel would have a free crack at fast lap, which was currently owned by the Mercedes' driver. Lap 47 and Grosjean was told to retire the car, for unspecified reasons. Norris was told the car would get unstable and the steering heavier as the hydraulics continued to go... 6 laps to manage and Ricciardo 2 seconds back.
Ricciardo was pushing, almost 0.3 seconds up on Norris but with little traffic up the road to get in the way. Hulkenberg was having a serious go at Raikkonen, but was unable to get close enough to overcome the Ferrari PU stuffed into the back of the Alfa. Ricciardo had an off and lost 3 seconds, which chucked him right back into the Raikkonen/Hulkenberg battle and a completely different set of problems.
Lap 51 and a loose bollard on track brought out a VSC, just long enough for a marshal to run on track and retrieve it. Vettel was into the pits for a crack at fast lap, having gotten within 4 seconds of Verstappen. But unbeknownst to the rest of us, Leclerc was waging a sneak attack and as the last lap rolled into view, he was within DRS, thanks to the VSC!!! Agonizingly close he got through the last lap but as the checquers fell, it was too little too late and across the line went Hamilton, Bottas and Leclerc in that order, as Vettel had managed to sneak a fast lap in right at the end. Sainz nailed on best of the rest but Norris wound up P10 as Ricciardo, trying to get round him, went off and came back on, forcing Norris off and letting both Raikkonen and Hulkenberg by Norris, and then Ricciardo was able to put it up the inside on Raikkonen and scoop P7. And to the surprise of no one, that was immediately flagged as being looked at by the stewards. Oh my.....
Brilliant race from Mercedes with Hamilton just 0.024 seconds slower than Vettel when all was said and done on old Hards versus brand new Softs. Magnificent from Sainz as well P6 with little issue, save from an occasional hurry up from his team and tragedy for Norris at the end, having done such a good job managing his issues... Another execrable result for Gasly and the whispers are growing ever louder as his continuing underperformance gets harder and harder to ignore, especially when compared to his teammate, who rocked off a P4 and generally got the best out of the car... Still waiting on word from the stewards regarding Ricciardo and there was much unhappiness from Racing Point, as Perez did go round the bollards with his off but still managed to gain 2 positions...Despite appearances, it was a tiny step forward for Ferrari and one can only hope that Austria next week offers them a better circuit to properly challenge at the front....
And remember to play nice in the comments!!