Monday, 18 June 2018

Paul Ricard Preview - New but far from new

In F1, as we are often reminded, nothing should be ruled out. However absurd it may seem.

F1 returns to a familiar place this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
The French Grand Prix is an apt tale in this. This weekend it at last returns to F1 after a decade away, at the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseille. Even allowing for the habitual agonising that accompanies the calendar choices, this recent French loss likely has been the most egregious move.

France is where motorsport's roots first sprouted. The first ever organised motor race took place there in July 1894 as did the first Grand Prix in 1906.

And a French Grand Prix appeared on the F1 calendar every year aside from 1955, when it was cancelled in the wake of the Le Mans disaster. Many great French drivers, teams and manufacturers have and still do bestride F1. But after 2008, after years of threatening by Bernie Ecclestone, the round was dropped - the familiar tale of lack of funding. And of F1 pitilessly abandoning its heritage and core audience in the name of chasing quick bucks.

Hope of a return never disappeared though and some of the hope was tangible. Bernie in April 2012 declared a deal was "done" for Paul Ricard to return the following year, but it seemed to flounder after a Presidential election not long later went against the party of then-Prime Minister and motorsport enthusiast Francois Fillon. There also was periodic mooting of races at Sarcelles, Versailles and Disneyland.

But eventually success for a Paul Ricard return was had, thanks to a team led up by the head of Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region Christian Estrosi and including McLaren boss Eric Boullier - aiding the project with his relationship with Bernie. In late 2016 Estrosi confirmed the race's return in a five year deal. Money had been raised part through public subsidy and part through the hope of ticket sales, with organisers optimistic that the wider economic impact - they spoke of a hope of 66,000 spectators - would far outweigh this input.

Drinks magnate Paul Ricard created a circuit in his own name
Photo: Octane Photography
Just like the French Grand Prix itself the Paul Ricard venue is new but hardly new to F1 - it hosting the round several times from 1971 through to 1990.

Paul Ricard the person was a south of France drinks magnate - particularly with an aniseed drink called pastis that he invented and which became very popular - and after building his own aerodrome in 1962 he built a racing circuit next to it in 1969, named after himself. 

When it arrived as an F1 host it was in John Watson's words "the Abu Dhabi of its time" - with everything that entailed. A grand forward stride in facilities and safety arrangements, but with an accompanying sense of being rather soulless. Flat, lunar and lacking in challenge.

But as is often the way its popularity grew over time; part of it down to location with the charms of a summertime Riviera stop-off obvious. To the point that when the race departed for Magny Cours in 1991 - a move that owed much to French politics - most regretted the fact.

The Paul Ricard circuit was dominated by two straights particularly the 1.8 km long Mistral straight (named after the wind that often blows along it) though many of the corners were tight and technical rather than for the brave. It did though have a mighty left-right swerve after the pits, the Signes sweep at the end of the Mistral as well as the double apex Beausset after that.

And the track returned to isn't all that different from that rocked up to in '71, though the Mistral now is dissected by a chicane - which may in turn take the challenge away from Signes - while the opening complex is more of a chicane.

Signes turn ends the Mistral straight
Photo: Octane Photography
So just like before car set-up at Ricard - finding a compromise between these disparate elements - will be tricky. If the wind gets up on the Mistral, the track sitting on an exposed plateau, you can multiply this.

This is only part of the reason that the race is a tough call in advance. There lately has been little between the 'big three' teams and adding the unknown of a new circuit makes the call yet tougher.

Ferrari though reminded us in Montreal last time out that it is likely F1's best all round offering in 2018 and Paul Ricard's challenge - compromising the requirement for straightline speed with more technical stuff elsewhere - will have some overlap with that in Canada. Ferrari it seems found the best middle ground of all then.

Red Bull's conundrum may be similar to that in Montreal, in that its low speed grip and traction will serve it well but it may find itself breathless at the end of the straights, particularly in qualifying mode. And as we've seen rather a lot lately track position means plenty in F1.

Mercedes had a tough time in Canada and unlike the round before in Monaco couldn't say it was due to it being an outlying bogey track - Valtteri Bottas on the back of this indeed has declared it a "fact" that Mercedes is not the favourite this weekend. But the team has some reasons for greater optimism in France. Its engine upgrade - scratched in Montreal - is due to be run this time, the hypersoft tyre - which has given it bother in '18 - won't be available and Merc also hasn't gone out on a limb with its compound selections as it did last time out. Pirelli also brings the thinner tread tyres which apparently were to Mercedes's advantage when used in Spain.

Plus the south of France in late June will be hot which also usually helps Merc. Plus a few thought Mercedes might still have won in Canada but for the accumulative impact of a series of small factors, some of which we've mentioned.

Red Bull may face a similar conundrum to in Montreal
Photo: Octane Photography
As for what increasingly is F1's 'class B', that was topped by Renault in Montreal but at least one Force India likely would have been among them without a slow pitstop for Esteban Ocon and an early off for Sergio Perez.

The less said about McLaren the better right now however. Boullier admitted that Montreal showed up its problems in low speed grip which in turn meant it had to ran more wing, impeding it on the straights - and Paul Ricard will likely give the same problem. Still its race team seems skilled in maximising race performances, particularly from Fernando Alonso. He presumably will have his tail up after his Le Mans win.

And many eyes will be on Toro Rosso, all to do with its Honda engine. The decision of the Red Bull A team whether to stick with its Renault for 2019 or take up the Honda from its B team Toro Rosso is imminent - and if the Japanese unit can confirm the potential of its upgrade that was heavily hinted at in Montreal then the switch may become a slam dunk.

Adding to what is new, this track has been resurfaced in advance of this return Grand Prix, though the place isn't all that unfamiliar to teams given its fairly common use as a test venue, including in a wet weather test earlier this year.

As intimated Pirelli hasn't gone to an absolute extreme in its compound selections - it tends to be err towards caution at new tracks - and this plus recent experience more generally suggests one-stoppers will again be the default. Pirelli's head Mario Isola indeed has predicted based on recent F1 and non-F1 running that grip will be high and degradation low, similar to those experienced in Spain (when indeed most stopped once), though adds that the high temperatures may increase thermal degradation. This may nudge people towards two stops. Whatever, teams will be calculating frantically during free practice.

But then again, nothing should be ruled out. This is F1 after all.

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