Formula 1 returns to Paul Ricard did not start well. Its first two races were, to put it mildly, not classics.
RaceFans readers rated the French Grand Prix for 2018 and 2019 unfavorably: Scores 6.3 and 3.4 out of 10 meant Paul Ricard ranked last among all 32 courses that have held races since 2008 for the quality of its action.
Fortunately, Sunday’s race was a total departure that not only served up midfield, but a battle for the lead that hung in balance until the penultimate round.
Formula 1 leader of motorsport Ross Brawn raved about Sunday’s seventh round of the world championship. “It was fabulous to see the race evolve from a slow burner to hummingbird,” 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 Bulls CEO Christian Horner was enthusiastic about the race as well Max Verstappen win. “When you consider that it was without a doubt the most boring race of the last five years, here two years ago, it was probably one of the most exciting races we’ve had in the last five years,” he said.
While Formula 1 did not run in Paul Ricard in 2020, its rules have not changed drastically since the last race in there, so we can rule it out as a reason why we may have seen a much better event. A random safety car also did not seem to add drama. So why did the track produce a much more satisfying meeting last weekend?
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It did not rain during the race – it never looked likely, the official FIA forecast never indicates more than 20% chance. But there was significant rainfall on Sunday morning, which made life interesting for the Formula 3 drivers.
It also cleaned the trail of rubber that had built up over the previous two days. That plus much lower track temperatures meant drivers discovered strikingly different grip levels as they took to the track for their reconnaissance laps before the race.
Some, like Ferrari, realized that they were in serious trouble. Their subsequent descent from fifth and seventh on the net to 11th and 16th at the flag was part of the reason we saw so much passing in midfield.
It also kept the teams guessing about the tire’s performance. What originally looked like a particular one-stop race swung toward two-stop territory. But it was close – the race winner Verstappen was one of only two drivers to throw twice. This was a strategic step to prevent Lewis Hamilton jumps in front of him, who created a contest that was only resolved in the penultimate round.
Verstapen’s race-winning pass to Hamilton may have been inevitable from the moment he came within DRS reach, but the chase that led up to it was pure drama.
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Mercedes was widely considered the favorites before the race. At the back of the two courses they had fought for, it was expected to return to a more conventional course would play into the hands of the world champions.
This did not happen. Red Bull beat them in qualifying, even though it was close again. Max Verstappen took pole position by a quarter of a second, but with the Mercedes pair looks strong at race pace, and Sergio Perez standing behind them and qualifying set up the race excellently.
Previous meetings with 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 qualify within a second of pole-winner Hamilton.
Daniel Ricciardo, who equaled 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 that they have put the circuit, Tarmac, and maybe it was a little more aggressive, and I guess some cars suffered more,” he explained. “So then you had bigger deck deltas.”
Weather conditions also played a role, Ricciardo added. “Also with the wind [there was] lots of bugs and slippage. So it was very easy to make a mistake. And of course, if you’re the car chasing, if you kind of keep it clean, you can really get a good slipstream.
“So that was probably the thing, just challenging conditions with a lot of tires created good racing. So I think it was really nice to see. ”
The revisions of the track went beyond refreshing the surface, which had already been thoroughly relayed two years earlier. While the configuration of the corners was unchanged, the profile of the track was changed at several points.
In places, this was done to improve drainage – note how quickly the water cleared during the Sunday morning Formula 3 race. But the relocation of the camber in several corners also had an effect. It was noticeable at turn five, the beginning of the acceleration zone leading to the harassment, where several drivers locked the wheels.
It may also have played a role in Verstappen’s crucial mistake in the first half that handed the lead to Hamilton. The Red Bull driver was caught out of tailwind when he arrived offline in the first corner and a move of oversteer sent him wide. It put him on a track that now slopes away from the center more steeply than two years ago, and he had to make another correction that sent him away. Yuki Tsunoda was caught out in the same corner during qualifying.
But it happened, Ricciardo was happy that F1 finally put a good race on the third French Grand Prix since the race was reintroduced in the calendar.
“I am just happy to be there [were] some punches and a fun run, ”he said. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction when you are able to fight and overtake.
“I was honestly envious of watching F3 this weekend, their race was so exciting. I really hoped we could get something similar. And I believe in moments of the race it was, so I enjoyed it. ”
Best of all, the gradual easing of pandemic restrictions meant that there were 15,000 spectators in the stands enjoying it all. No wonder there was a smile afterwards during the race CEO Eric Boullier.
“The goal as a promoter is for everyone to leave the field on Sunday night with a smile, but also to have 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 mood.”
Quotes: Dieter Rencken