Monday, 25 June 2018

French GP Report - Zig and zag

It's worth reflecting that in not a single F1 round this season have we ended the weekend with the same sense of the competitive pecking order that we started the weekend with. Yes both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have won races back-to-back this year, but in both cases the first of the pair was fortunate; the second was imperious.

Lewis Hamilton bounced back in France
Photo: Octane Photography
And in France at the Paul Ricard circuit - F1's first visit to the country since 2008 and the first to this circuit since 1990 - this continued. Hamilton and Mercedes zigged while Vettel and Ferrari zagged. Vettel's joy and Hamilton's woe from Montreal last time out were almost exactly reversed.

Vettel when asked after qualifying what was different mused, "the weather, the track, the location - the car is the same, same chassis - the tyres..."

And in a tight fight at the front these combined can tilt things either way.

While with Mercedes in 2018 the shifts have been especially stark. Yet even without hindsight we had reasons to think it could be back on top in this one. Its engine upgrade - scratched in Montreal - was run; the hypersoft tyre - which has given it bother in '18 - wasn't be available; Pirelli brought the thinner tread tyres which apparently were to Mercedes's advantage when first used in Spain. The Paul Ricard track has at least some quick corners, plus the south of France in late June is hot - both of these circumstances usually aid Merc too.

The upshot was that this was one of Hamilton and Mercedes's good weekends. The grid's front row was all silver and comfortably so; polesitter Hamilton thought he had more time in hand. Whatever in the race he never looked like being beaten, leading every lap apart for one in the pitstops round.

His team-mate Valtteri Bottas likely would have followed him home but he had his latest major dose of bad luck in '18. At turn one Vettel tagged him in the back - almost literally sucked in after a good launch - and punctured the Finn's rear tyre. It put Bottas to the back (albeit with the pack bunched under the safety car) and the resultant floor damage - he called his car "terrible to drive" - and a later slow pitstop meant he could only salvage seventh.

Sebastian Vettel hit Valtteri Bottas at the first turn
Photo: Octane Photography
Vettel broke his front wing in the clash and fell to the back too, though such is the modern-day advantage of the 'big three' teams he got back to fifth place with some ease. Plenty - not least Hamilton - thought he was deserving of more of a penalty for the incident than the five seconds he got.

"Ultimately when someone destroys your race through an error and it's kind of a tap on the hand really - they're allowed to come back and still finish ahead of that person he took out - it doesn't weigh up," Hamilton noted.

Vettel was contrite. "My start was too good," he said. "Then I ended up with nowhere to go.

"It was my mistake, I tried to brake early and get out of it, but I had no room and no grip, being so close to the car in front and also next to me.

"We had good pace, I tried to hammer through the field to recover and damaged the tyres, therefore it is a bit difficult to say [where we could have ended up without the collision].

"I think we had decent pace to at least go with Mercedes."

Others weren't so convinced.

And it was the latest in another nagging theme of the season - that Vettel hasn't always made the best of things. Even with the zigging and zagging mentioned Ferrari likely has been the year's best all round offering yet Vettel as mentioned trails in the points. While Hamilton for all he's associated with the whizzbang has on one level at least been a model of consistency - this was his 33rd consecutive points finish.

Max Verstappen continued his resurgence with second place
Photo: Octane Photography
As if to perfectly conform to the zig-zag, Hamilton's points lead over Vettel is back to exactly where it was before his difficult Montreal stop-off, at 14.

"I feel very grateful, just grateful for a solid weekend," Hamilton continued. "My guys, I’ve been with them for six years and they are just continually pushing the boundaries and never giving up, so I'm just forever grateful for all their work, here at the track and back at the factory. This is a great day, really. I enjoyed the race."

One person altering his theme of '18 is Max Verstappen who now has put in two fine drives after his Monaco depths - this time he finished second having alone kept Hamilton just about in sight throughout. And afterwards - given all that happened - he couldn't resist a dig at one of his more vocal former critics Vettel...

The other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen got third, passing Daniel Ricciardo late on helped by an off-set pit strategy as well as by Ricciardo's Red Bull having front wing damage. Raikkonen may be another struggling to change his developing theme of this year as strong word is that Ferrari protegee Charles Leclerc is all set to replace him for next season, and Leclerc impressed again in France.

He impressed particularly be taking eighth on the grid which struck a lot like a proper star is born moment. And while his Sauber found its level rather more in the race he still got a point for tenth. He did leave the track to let Nico Hulkenberg past but but only a curmudgeon would hold that against him.

Pierre Gasly's race didn't last beyond the first lap
Photo: Octane Photography
Best of the rest this time was Kevin Magnussen in the Haas who finished sixth, though he got the place late on when Carlos Sainz's fine weekend in the Renault was spoiled when he lost his MGU-K, which sank him to eighth (and by his own admission he likely would have sunk out of the points altogether without an even later Virtual Safety Car intervention). His team-mate Hulkenberg got ninth.

All three home pilots had their races spoiled on lap one - Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly retired due to a collision (the stewards reprimanded both) while Romain Grosjean got a penalty for sideswiping Ocon just before.

Williams and McLaren meanwhile continued their woeful time - a statement that at the time of F1's last visit to Paul Ricard would have seemed laughable.

But then again we've said how in this game things can change quickly. For now Hamilton and Mercedes look serene, yet given everything you wouldn't be surprised if things looked very different after the next one. The 'what a difference a race makes' adage can rarely have applied as persistently or as markedly as in this F1 campaign.

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