Whether it’s cycling or Formula 1, not everything can always go to plan when you’re racing.Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr – had executed their weekend’s strategy to perfection.
Taking the tactical hit of a power unit penalty, Sainz was the consummate domestique for his team mate on Saturday, towing Leclerc to pole position with a slipstream that the riders of the Tour de France racing some 700 kilometres away in Paris would have been proud of.
After snapping a win-less streak of almost three months at Silverstone, Ferrari were beginning to look like they would chip away at Red Bull and Max Verstappen’s imposing championship lead heading into the summer break. In Austria and Great Britain, Leclerc had edged closer towards his key rival.
But by Sunday evening, Leclerc’s championship hopes looked more remote than ever.
Lining up on the scorching, 51C asphalt with Verstappen and Red Bull wingman Sergio Perez alongside him, Leclerc knew just how vulnerable he was on the 500-metre run to the first corner. But when the lights went out, both he and Verstappen leapt off the line together like two sprinters launching a breakaway from the chasing pack.
Perez behind reacted equally well, but wheelspin in the second phase of the start robbed his momentum and allowed second-row starter Lewis Hamilton to breeze past him and fill Verstappen’s mirrors on the approach to the braking zone. Fernando Alonso scooped up two places on George Russell and Lando Norris through sheer stubbornness, planting his Alpine to the inside approaching turn one and refusing to yield.
Leclerc led Verstappen, Hamilton and Perez as the pack entered the segmented Mistral Straight for the first time, already splintering into various groups. In the middle of the pack Esteban Ocon pulled well alongside Yuki Tsunoda approaching the chicane but appeared to lose grip at the apex, sliding into the unfortunate AlphaTauri and sending him spinning. Ocon, one of two local drivers in the field, was punished with a five-second time penalty for his error.
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Crossing the line to begin the second lap, the top five were evenly spread out, a second apart. After starting last, Kevin Magnussen was remarkably ahead of his team mate in 13th having somehow gained seven places in one lap. Sainz, who shared the back row with the Haas driver, had started on hard tyres and only gained a position from the fuming Tsunoda.
All the talk before the race had been about how to avoid burning up tyres on the blistering track, so it was little surprise when Verstappen was instructed to go “straight into management” before the end of the first lap, setting the tempo for the first stint. Leclerc and Verstappen pulled away from Hamilton behind them by running in the 1’38s, while Hamilton either refused or was unable to break out of the 1’39s, frustrating Perez behind him as he struggled with traction.
Verstappen stayed within DRS range of Leclerc, who dragged him along the straights, keeping him close to striking range over the lap. Heading down the first half of the Mistral on lap six, race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase told Verstappen that he was closer to Leclerc than he had ever been approaching the chicane. When Leclerc wobbled at the apex, Lambiase authorised Verstappen to go to “mode seven”, allowing him to slipstream the Ferrari through Signes and look to the outside of Beausset. However, that line did not offer Verstappen a route through to the lead.
“I thought he would be faster,” Verstappen admitted after the race. “I thought it would be very hard to follow. But immediately, I could see that our balance was not bad. But again, it can also be just managing a bit, but it looked like we were very competitive.”
After Verstappen’s speculative look on lap six did not get him past Leclerc, Red Bull decided it was time to focus on preserving his tyre life. “The field isn’t spreading out that quickly at this stage,” Lambiase explained, “so just keep at it – looking after the tyres.”
Gradually, Leclerc began inching away, eventually pulling out of DRS range by the end of lap 13. By now they held a seven-second gap to Hamilton behind, Perez still unable to get the surely slower Mercedes out of his vision and into his mirrors. Half a minute back from the leader, Sainz had passed half of the field and was already up to tenth.
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Completing the 15th lap, Red Bull played their hand. Verstappen was called in for a set of hard tyres before being set on his way, rejoining the track in seventh behind Norris, who he quickly dispatched at Beausset with a comically easy pass.
Although he faced a lengthy, 38-lap stint on his hard tyres, Verstappen’s mind was on anything but nursing the rubber to the flag. “Can you let me know please if he’s in or not, so I know how to push?” he asked. “You need to push, now. You do need to push,” Lambiase insisted.
But the leader was also pushing, back in the 1’38s consistently once again. As Verstappen turned the timing screens purple, Leclerc was doing whatever he could to wring what pace was left out of his medium tyres.
Then, suddenly and without warning, Ferrari’s carefully-executed strategy was torn up by a single – and seemingly avoidable – driving error.
On lap 18, Leclerc dived deep into Beausset as he so often had all weekend, but this time – for whatever reason – things did not go according to plan. As Leclerc pirouetted into the tyre wall, the impact itself may have been relatively minor but it was a yet another hammer blow to his championship ambitions which seemed to be dissipating into the air like the smoke from his scorched tyres.
Leclerc, unaware his radio was still on, let loose a primal scream of anguish and frustration which was so raw and so loud Verstappen might have heard it as he passed the crash scene. “Oh, fuck!” exclaimed the Red Bull driver as he saw what had happened. “He’s alright?”
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Thankfully, Leclerc appeared to be physically unharmed from the shunt, even if his pride had been. “I feel like I’m performing at probably the highest level of my career since the beginning of the season,” he explained when RaceFans asked him about the crash, “but there’s no point of performing at a very high level if then I do those mistakes.”
With a car in the barrier, the Safety Car was scrambled. Suddenly, everyone still on their starting tyres was practically obligated to pit, which the vast majority did. Mercedes double-stacked Hamilton and Russell, while Perez also came in behind them.
Sainz arrived from tenth, but a delay in pulling away from his pit box caused an alarming near-miss. Alexander Albon, who was clearing a tear-off from his visor, reacted quickly enough, slamming on the brakes to avoid a potentially dangerous collision in the busy pit lane.
The Ferrari driver was not concerned. “It was okay, it was not dangerous,” he insisted. However, the stewards determined that it was in fact not okay and clearly unsafe, handing him a five-second time penalty on behalf of his team.
With Leclerc out, the new leaders behind the Safety Car were Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez and Russell, with Sainz now in tenth place on fresh medium tyres while most of those ahead had just replaced theirs with hards. With the inherent traction advantage to be expected from the mediums, Sainz’s exit of the final corner was good enough to allow him to slip by Daniel Ricciardo before even reaching turn one, and he took Norris’s sixth place before they arrived at the chicane on the restart lap.
Verstappen was by no means under pressure at the restart and it was not long before he had drawn out a handy lead to the pursuing Hamilton. Sainz drew alongside Alonso’s Alpine on the run to turn eight, with little legal options available for Alonso to keep the Ferrari behind. Russell in fourth took far more effort to catch, despite being less than two seconds ahead after passing Perez.
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By lap 30, Sainz was close enough to carry momentum out of the chicane and pull out of the slipstream of the Mercedes and alongside on the run to Signes, sweeping by on the outside and into fourth position. Suddenly, having started on the back row of the grid, Sainz was one position away from a potential podium finish with just over half the race gone.
Chasing down Perez required Sainz to carefully balance how hard he would lean on his medium tyres and he reeled in the Red Bull at a rate of around four tenths a lap. By lap 36, Sainz was within DRS range, but he quickly realised he was not closing on Perez with his rear wing activated like he had with many of those he’d passed earlier.
“It looks very difficult to pass this guy,” Sainz warned race engineer Riccardo Adami. “Especially with their top speed.”
“We are considering plan A,” Adami responded. “Have a think and let me know, 16 laps to go.”
“We need to decide now,” Sainz urged his team. “But I think it’s difficult.”
Nearly two laps later, Ferrari eventually confirmed to their driver they would go with “plan D”, but they were now sure Perez would be going until the end on his tyres.
“So let’s stop,” Sainz insisted. “If not, we’re not going to have enough laps to catch.”
But despite the Red Bull’s straight-line speed, Sainz was now finding himself able to put Perez under significant pressure. Perez going defensive at the chicane on lap 41 allowed Sainz to have a genuine look around the outside of Signes, but Perez left only a Ferrari’s width’s worth of space as they rounded the bend together at 300km/h as he successfully defended.
As Sainz prepared a counter attack through turn 12, Ferrari told him to peel off into the pits at the next corner. “Not now! Not now!,” Sainz snapped, the racer’s instinct having fully taken over. Positioning his car to the outside of 14 gave him the superior position for the final corner and he dived down the inside and into third place, out-dragging the Red Bull.
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Now past the Red Bull and in a podium position, Sainz told his team he was “happy to go to the end.” Ferrari, however, were not. “We think box now,” Adami replied.
So at the end of lap 42 with just 11 laps remaining and having just passed the Red Bull, Sainz peeled off into the pit lane to serve his five- second penalty and switch to a second set of mediums. From being 1.4 seconds ahead of the Red Bull, Sainz remerged in ninth, 31.6 seconds away from the podium position he had just given up.
Sainz moving ahead of Perez – albeit briefly – had allowed Russell to close up behind the Red Bull. With a DRS-boosted slipstream along the Mistral Straight, Russell ate up the four tenths gap until he was almost a car length behind by the time he slammed on the brakes at the 100 metre marker board. Perez squeezed the Mercedes to the inside with Russell’s front wheels three-quarters alongside the Red Bull at the apex, but with so much more momentum the Mercedes bumped the Red Bull into the escape road as Perez held onto the position.
Russell was incredulous. “He just fully turned into me!” he exclaimed. “I was fully inside, he just turned in and I had to take the kerb.”
Russell was adamant he had been wronged and continued to demand restitution. But Mercedes – and, more importantly, the stewards – saw the matter differently. While the stewards declared there was no need to investigate the clash further.
In a rare intervention, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff offered words of encouragement to his driver. “George, keep your head down. You can hunt him down,” he directed.
Further back, Sainz was already up to seventh and easily the fastest car on track, now just under 28 seconds away from Perez. However, the reality that gaining back his third place was now almost an impossibility was dawning on Sainz.
“I don’t understand why we boxed,” he told his team. “We would have pulled away.”Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo has stopped on the exit of turn six.
After the marshals quickly pushed Zhou’s car to safety, race control announced the VSC period would be ending as Perez and Russell were half way down the first Mistral Straight. Having built a buffer to his VSC delta, Perez floored it exiting the chicane expecting the track to go green.
However, a system failure caused an unexpected delay which led to all teams getting a second warning about the VSC coming to an end. As Perez slowed to respect the delta out of turn 12, Russell closed back in. He then hit the throttle out of the corner in anticipation of the green flag. By the time the race resumed, Russell was 20km/h faster than Perez, allowing him to shoot past the Red Bull and up into third place.
“I just gunned it when the lights went green and got the run on him and went around the outside at turn 14,” Russell explained after the race. “I just got a really nice run, timed it perfectly.”
With Russell now into the final podium position, the race’s finishing results were set. Out front, Verstappen had been untroubled from the moment he led the field over the line at the Safety Car restart and strolled around Paul Ricard for the final laps to clinch his seventh win of the season and further cement his now commanding position at the top of the drivers’ championship.
But even Red Bull had to admit that Leclerc’s error had robbed them of a potentially exciting afternoon. “Well done Max, well closed off,” said Lambiase after the chequered flag. “Shame – I think it would have been a good race.”
Having got ahead of Perez at the start and kept ahead, Lewis Hamilton had enjoyed a strong, lonely and thirsty afternoon after the Safety Car restart, unable to compete with Verstappen’s pace ahead but free from any pressure behind. Russell held off Perez in the closing laps to claim the final podium position and the first double podium for Mercedes of the season.
“This is progress,” said Hamilton. “Even though we’re not necessarily closing the gap as such in race performance, in actual qualifying performance, but this is great points for us.”
A disgruntled Perez finished fourth, frustrated to have lost a podium after a hardware glitch meant his VSC tactics backfired when they otherwise should have benefited him. Behind, Sainz had to settle for fifth, 11 seconds away from Perez at the chequered flag after all the effort put into passing him on track.
“We were boxed in with strategy there with the tyres not going to the end,” Adami attempted to console his driver after the race. “Not going to the end was tough, I know, but you did what you could.”
“Yeah I know, but we had nothing to lose by staying out,” an unconvinced Sainz responded. Speaking to the media he appeared more inclined to give his team the benefit of the doubt.
Alonso claimed sixth ahead of Norris, followed by their respective team mates Ocon in eighth and Ricciardo ninth. On the final lap, Lance Stroll secured the last point in tenth by robustly holding off team mate Sebastian Vettel.
After a weekend where Ferrari had looked to build momentum heading into the summer break and continue to turn the tide of the title battle against Red Bull, they left Paul Ricard with the prospect of taking the championship seemingly further out of reach than it ever had been.
There had been times when Leclerc had done everything that could have been asked of him only for his car to let him down when he needed it most. But in France, a flawless team performance was thrown away by a simple driver error.
But even with an absurd lead of 63 points, the championship leader refuses to take anything about his seemingly unassailable advantage for granted.
“It’s a great lead, but a lot of things can happen,” said Verstappen. “We need a lot more good results.
“It’s all about scoring points, every single race. Even when it’s not your day.”
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