The winning honours returned to Max Verstappen and Red Bull at the Circuit de Paul Ricard this Sunday, a far from classic race that will come to be remembered for its defining moment: a Charles Leclerc mistake early on that may have championship repercussions.
Luck that had only just been rekindled in the orange smoke of Austria for Charles Leclerc was cruelly snuffed out as the Ferrari pilot lost his rear tyres at turn 11 of Paul Ricard and span into the wall, ending his race and sending the momentum decisively to the chasing Max Verstappen, who gripped onto P1 with classical efficiency right to the close of the race. Before Sunday’s climax, the weekends sessions of practice and qualifying had set up a juicy narrative prior to the race start. France promised yet another Ferrari and Red Bull lock-out at the head of the grid, the teams doubling down on their relative cornering speed and straight line speed in opposing set ups, high versus low downforce. However, Carlos Sainz’s engine penalty, also meted out to Kevin Magnussen, invalidated his strong qualifying performances and left Charles Leclerc alone on pole, flanked by the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez. The gap between the top two teams and the chasing pack failed to close, with Mercedes qualifying strongly but in P4 and P6, separated by an impressive Lando Norris and with an again strong Fernando Alonso breathing down their neck in P7. The top 10 was completed by Yuki Tsunoda in 8th, again beating out his teammate Pierre Gasly (and on home soil!) then Riccardo and Esteban Ocon in tenth. In the overbearing Provence heat, the track temperatures approaching 60 degrees, a tough race seemingly to be decided by tire management beckoned, yet Leclerc could take some comfort from the fact that last three races here had been won from pole.
That comfort must have settled Leclerc as he started incredibly well, holding off Verstappen’s hoped early advance, who saw his teammate flanked by a rapid Lewis Hamilton. Fernando Alonso in a typically wily move took two cars ahead in one sweep at turn one, as the McLarens were forced to bunch up. Yuki Tsunoda had the early race misfortune this round, Ocon’s contact at the first chicane spinning the Japanese and leaving him at the back of the race. Kevin Magnussen rapidly climbed the order in the first lap yet Carlos Sainz on the hard tyres held fire.
The early chase for first position continued throughout the first quarter of the race, the top two establishing a notable gap behind them, Verstappen coming within half a second of Leclerc from lap four. This gap ensured that the championship leaders had ample space and time to test one another’s mettle, yet even with DRS and a speed advantage on the straights Leclerc held onto the lead, driving imperiously. It was because his racing had been so fantastic that his actions on lap 18 seemed such a surprise, his crash at turn 11 releasing a furious cry that seemed so unlike a normally unflappable character. This moment defined not only his race but that of those around him, with Verstappen and other seizing upon the subsequent safety car and stopping for new tires. From here, it was Max Verstappen’s race to lose, calmly finishing the race 30 or so laps later with a 10.587 margin over Hamilton in second. Meanwhile, a keen midfield battle unfolded as Carlos Sainz began to climb rapidly into the top 10, moving past the warring Alpines and McLarens, and by lap 42 even Sergio Perez, all on the same medium tires from his pit stop during Leclerc’s safety car. A panicked Ferrari pit wall, throughout his intense duel with Perez, dithered on whether to pit the Spaniard or not, the delay resulting in perhaps too late of a stop and a rapid fall back to P9, which would have been sweetened by another climb to P5 by race end and an additional fastest lap point, as well as the moral victory of the Driver of the Day award. The other winners from Leclerc’s withdrawal were undoubtedly Mercedes, securing a double podium finish as George Russell passed Sergio Perez close the end and saw off the Mexican despite his best efforts.
The bottom half of the race fell victim to the dynamics of the various types of safety cars throughout the race, with much of the action coming from the tight midfield. A series of mechanical failures for Tsunoda, Zhou Guanyu and Nicholas Latifi thinned the pack out, but not enough for any of a disappointing Valtteri Bottas, out of qualifying for the 6th week running and anonymous during the race, Pierre Gasly or Alexander Albon of Williams to move into the points. Aston Martin’s two drivers were closely linked throughout – albeit a little too closely in the final turn, almost colliding as they battled for the singular point of tenth.
A quick turnaround for the 2022 Hungarian Grand Prix next week in Budapest ratchets up the pressure once again for Ferrari as they once again slip back a step in the title race. For Red Bull and Max Verstappen, however, it only allows them to continue with momentum.