Formula 1’s return to Paul Ricard did not begin well. Its first two races were, to put it kindly, not classics.ranked last among all 32 tracks which have held races since 2008 for the quality of its action.
Happily, Sunday’s race was a total departure, not only serving up action in the midfield, but a battle for the lead which hung in the balance until the penultimate lap.
Formula 1’s head of motorsport Ross Brawn raved about Sunday’s seventh round of the world championship. “It was fabulous watching the race evolve from a slow burner to humdinger,” he said. “This race was the epitome of F1 – we saw the human side and the strategy side of the sport in all its glory.”
Red Bull CEO Christian Horner was thrilled with the race as well as Max Verstappen’s win. “When you consider it was arguably the most boring race of the last five years, two years ago here, that was probably one of the most exciting races we’ve had in the last five years,” he said.
While Formula 1 didn’t race at Paul Ricard in 2020, its regulations have not changed drastically since the last race in there, so we can rule that out as a reason why we might have seen a much better event. Nor did a fortuitously-timed Safety Car appear to add drama. So why did the track produce a much more satisfying encounter last weekend?
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It didn’t rain during the race – it never looked likely to, the official FIA forecast never indicating more than a 20% chance. But there was a significant downpour on Sunday morning which made life interesting for the Formula 3 drivers.
It also cleaned the track of the rubber which had built up over the previous two days. That, plus much lower track temperatures, meant drivers discovered strikingly different grip levels when they took to the track for their pre-race reconnaissance laps.
Some, like Ferrari, realised they were in serious trouble. Their subsequent descent from fifth and seventh on the grid to 11th and 16th at the flag was part of the reason why we saw so much overtaking in the midfield.
It also kept teams guessing about tyre performance. What originally looked like a certain one-stop race swung towards two-stop territory. But it was close – race-winner Verstappen was one of just two drivers to pit twice. This was a strategic move to prevent Lewis Hamilton jumping ahead of him, which set up a contest which was only resolved on the penultimate lap.
Verstappen’s race-winning pass on Hamilton may have been inevitable from the moment he got within DRS range, but the chase that led up to it was pure drama.
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Mercedes were widely considered the pre-race favourites. Coming off the back of two tracks they had struggled at, the return to a more conventional course was expected to play into the hands of the world champions.
This didn’t happen. Red Bull beat them in qualifying, though again it was close. Max Verstappen took pole position by a quarter of a second, but with the Mercedes pair looking strong on race pace, and Sergio Perez lining up behind them, qualifying set the race up superbly.
Previous encounters at Paul Ricard have been far more one-sided. On F1’s last visit to the track Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari was the only non-Mercedes to qualifying within a second of pole-winner Hamilton.
Daniel Ricciardo, who equalled his best result of the season with sixth place, offered another explanation for why Paul Ricard produced a better race this year.
“My answer is they re-laid the circuit, the Tarmac, and perhaps it was a little bit more aggressive and I guess some cars suffered more,” he explained. “So then you had bigger tyre deltas.”
The weather conditions also played a part, Ricciardo added. “With the wind as well [there was] lots of mistakes and sliding. So it was very easy to make a mistake. And obviously, if you’re the car that’s hunting, if you kind of keep it clean, you can really get a good slipstream.
“So that was probably the thing, just challenging conditions with some tyre deg created good racing. So I think that was really nice to see.”
The revisions to the track went beyond refreshing the surface, which had already been extensively relaid two years earlier. While the configuration of the corners was unchanged, the profile of the track was altered at several points.
In places this was done to improve drainage – note how quickly the water cleared during Sunday morning’s Formula 3 race. But the repositioning of the camber at several corners also had an effect. It was noticeable at turn five, the beginning of the acceleration zone which leads to the chicane, where several drivers locked wheels.
It may also have played a role in Verstappen’s crucial first-lap error which handed the lead to Hamilton. The Red Bull driver was caught out by a tailwind when he arrived off-line at the first corner and a twitch of oversteer sent him wide. That put him onto a section of track which now slopes away from the centre more steeply than it did two years ago, and he had to make another correction which sent him off. Yuki Tsunoda was caught out at the same corner during qualifying.
However it came about, Ricciardo was pleased F1 finally put on a good race on the third French Grand Prix since the race was reinstated to the calendar.
“I’m just happy that there [were] some battles and a fun race,” he said. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction when you’re able to battle and overtake.
“I had envy, honestly, watching F3 this weekend, their races were so exciting. I really hoped we could have something like that. And I think at moments of the race it was, so I enjoyed that.”
Best of all, the gradual easing of pandemic restrictions meant there were 15,000 spectators in the stands enjoying it all. No wonder there was a smile on the race of the race’s managing director Eric Boullier afterwards.
“The target as a promoter is to have everybody leaving the track on Sunday night with a smile, but also having a smile at home for the TV spectators, obviously, and the paddock,” he said. “I guess some people are not happy today because they have not won but it’s good to feel a good, positive vibe.”
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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