Sunday Standouts: Fighting in France
Updated: Jun 27, 2021
Paul Ricard is recognisable for a couple of things: that chicane, a tough last sector on the tyres, and the blue and red run-off stripes that stop the cars but not our heads from spinning. Usually not the most exciting show on the calendar, last weekend gave us a surprisingly tense race throughout most of the grid. One of the biggest discoveries was the unexpectedly high tyre degradation, which allowed for careful pacing from drivers and different strategies to be played around with by some teams. The track has been dominated by Mercedes in the years prior, but Red Bull made some brilliant strategic decisions to take their first double podium and third consecutive win of the season. Max Verstappen now leads the drivers’ championship by 12 points over Lewis Hamilton, while his team boasts an extra 37 points than Mercedes. This is shaping up to be an intense year-long battle between the rivals and with that, here are my 5 wins and 3 misses of the 2021 French Grand Prix.
————— Wins —————
5. Aston Martin (Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll)
The “green Mercedes” grabbed their second double points finish this week (the first being in Monaco) as long first stints on hards allowed both drivers to start overtaking in the late stages of the race. Vettel, who has looked much more comfortable in his car since the first race in Bahrain, even said that “it was only a couple of laps that we were missing in the end, otherwise we could have had a battle on our hands for maybe more points.” With this claim, could the 4-time world champion be back on form? On the other side of the garage, Lance Stroll did not have a good qualifying at all, not even making it out of Q1 after a deleted lap time and early end to the session. He made up 9 spots from P19 on the grid to take the last points scoring place, a well-deserved result.
4. George Russell
Russell came out of the race in 12th, and considering that he was in a Williams and no retirements on Sunday, meant that he earned this completely on merit. The British driver cited that it was the “best race we’ve ever had together with Williams”, and save for his first lap blunder that saw him drop from P14 to P17, he was “really happy”. Russell also made an overtake on Alpha Tauri’s Yuki Tsunoda in the end stages of the race, showing off careful planning and tyre management skills. Viewers will have been left wondering what could have been had there been an incident ahead, potentially awarding Russell his first points in a Williams.
3. Lando Norris
Norris is currently the only driver on the 2021 grid who has scored points in every race, and he racked up a sixth top 5 finish in seven races last weekend. Former champion Nico Rosberg commented on his “astonishing form”, saying that “absolutely Lando has what it takes to be a World Champion.” Despite such favourable comments, Norris is far from a title fight. It does seem more and more certain that he will finish at least in the top six of the championship this year considering that McLaren looks like the third best car on track. Norris had a mediocre start to the race and a small slight with Pierre Gasly during their battle, but with tyres nine laps fresher than teammate Daniel Ricciardo, he fought his way back up the grid for P5.
2. Daniel Ricciardo
Ricciardo reminded us why he is the Honey Badger as he went on the hunt on Sunday, picking off the midfield to tie his highest result this season at 6th. It was good to see the Aussie back on form last weekend as his season has been a little lacklustre compared to Norris’. Having Ricciardo consistently a little higher will be massive for McLaren’s championship fight as Ferrari have been on and off between races. Claiming that the car “started to feel a little more like home”, Ricciardo will try to keep that signature grin of his as the circus heads to Austria.
1. Red Bull (Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez)
Two podiums and a huge lead in the championship, what more could Red Bull ask for? It seems more and more certain that this is the lineup the team have been searching for for years, cycling through Gasly and Alex Albon before finding the perfect partner of Perez. It was an edge-of-your-seat feeling when viewers watched Max Verstappen slowly but surely chase Lewis Hamilton down, hoping it wouldn’t be a repeat of Bahrain. Verstappen had stopped again for fresh softs, but even with Hamilton’s superb tyre-management skills, he finally had to yield to the Dutchman. With this win from pole, Verstappen completed a hat trick by taking the fastest lap of the race as the cherry on top.
As for Perez, he went for a long first stint and pitted 5 and 7 laps later than Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas respectively. This allowed him to put pressure on Mercedes and the increasingly irate Bottas as his fresher tyres allowed him to catch the Finn for the last podium spot. Considering that this is his second podium in a row, this is exactly what Perez needs to be doing to guarantee his seat for next year. Regardless, this is shaping up to be a phenomenal year for Red Bull who now go to their namesake track. Team principal Christian Horner did say about France - which until now was a Mercedes stronghold - “if we can beat them here, then really we can beat them anywhere,” so it will be all eyes on the home team.
————— Misses —————
3. Esteban Ocon
Considering this was the Frenchman’s home race, most would think he would be further buoyed by his recent contract extension. But the weekend was simply disappointing for Ocon, failing to get past Q2 and ending up in P14 after the race in his second consecutive pointless Sunday. In most of the previous races of the season, Ocon has seemed to stay on top of teammate Fernando Alonso, but as the former champion finds his footing in the team Ocon will have to prove that he can still challenge the Spaniard beyond his initial learning.
2. Ferrari (Carlos Sainz Jr and Charles Leclerc)
Compared to their showing on the street circuits, Ferrari barely made a dent this weekend. Both drivers made it into Q3, with Leclerc in 7th and Sainz Jr in 5th. But on race day, they simply failed to make the tyres work properly and dropped like stones out of the points. A lack of race pace on Sunday is a sore spot that has plagued the Scuderia as they have drivers who are incredible qualifiers (with Leclerc scoring two pole positions in Monaco and Azerbaijan), but this sheer lack of fight inevitably forces them to lose out on precious points. Hopefully with further development in the season, the Ferrari drivers will be able to turn their qualifying results into some more podiums.
1. Mercedes and Valtteri Bottas
Bottas’ season seems to be on the verge of unravelling as tensions ran high after a dismal strategy call from the Mercedes garage. As most will already have heard, the furious Finn shouted over the radio, “why the f- does no one listen to me when I say that it's going to be a two-stopper?” Even if he wouldn’t have been able to challenge Verstappen and Hamilton, perhaps a fresher set of rubber would have allowed him to stay ahead of Perez, and even after that take a precious point for fastest lap from Verstappen. But the strategy team kept him out, banking on the slight chance that Perez would receive a penalty in the last couple laps. After the race, one line of team radio from the garage in particular was broadcast: “that one is on us”. Both Bottas and fans will be left wondering what could have been if Mercedes had listened to their driver and split their strategies, and it will be interesting to see what calls will be made in the Austrian double-header.
That is it for my Sunday Standouts for the 2021 French Grand Prix, if you enjoyed it share it on Twitter! This a regular series for the 2021 season, so make sure follow my Twitter @castorscorner to stay updated!