Max Verstappen extended his championship lead to 12 points with victory in the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard
Credit: REUTERS/Yves Herman
The French Grand Prix was almost one of Lewis Hamilton’s greatest wins, a textbook show of supreme tyre and pace management in a car that he had struggled to get the most from for much of the race weekend.
Off the back of two awful weekends in Monaco and Baku where Mercedes and Hamilton surrendered significant ground to Max Verstappen and Red Bull, the race at Paul Ricard was closer to normality. But this time it was Red Bull looking the sharper and more decisive throughout the race, denying Mercedes at the death, leaving them deflated, disappointed and trailing in both championships.
Red Bull learned lessons from dispiriting weekends in the Iberian peninsula and nailed their strategy, whilst Mercedes looked passive. So, how did it all pan out?
How it happened
With a Verstappen error at the start, Hamilton took the lead without much more than a decent launch from the line. In the opening 10 laps Hamilton was kept honest by his rival without ever being harried, the gap at around two seconds by lap 11. A Red Bull win would need luck, an error or come through strategy.
A Verstappen error handed Hamilton the lead on lap one
Credit: NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images
As the first – and for Mercedes the only – pit stops approached, Hamilton had extended his lead up to three seconds. This is when Mercedes brought third-placed Valtteri Bottas – running as close to Verstappen as Verstappen was to Hamilton – into the pits.
Not unreasonably, the hope was that with fresh rubber the Finn could “undercut” Verstappen, finding enough time on his lap out of the pits to jump the Dutchman before he would inevitably respond by stopping the next lap.
It was close and did not work out but was worth a try. Had it come off, Mercedes would have been 1-2 on the road, with protection and a buffer for Hamilton. They would have controlled the pace, too. The only time Verstappen had a sustained lap time advantage over Hamilton (and Bottas) was with a large tyre offset in his second stint.
Questions were asked of Mercedes about this decision and team principal Toto Wolff said Bottas had heavy vibrations in his tyres and had to come in before Hamilton. With hindsight they would have chosen to prioritise Hamilton at the first stops but at this point their error was not critical and the marginal decision was justifiable.
Where Mercedes lost the race…their first big mistake
The fatal error came by not bringing Hamilton in the very next lap (19), when Verstappen had to stop to avoid being jumped by Bottas. In leaving Hamilton out for an extra lap they handed Verstappen a chance to take advantage of his new tyres and to retake the net race lead. Which is exactly what he did, setting a blistering final sector time as he made the first corner mere metres before Hamilton.
Mercedes have rarely been in a title fight this close but, in this situation, you cannot give chances to Verstappen like that. It is hard to see the thinking behind this and this must go down as a strategy error.
After the race, the team said they did not know how strong “undercut” would be. But there was already plenty of evidence with some early midfield stoppers. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had posted the quickest middle sector time on his new hard tyres (even with an overtake of Nikita Mazepin), 0.4 seconds quicker than Hamilton at the time. In a similar position, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo set the quickest final sector time, too – half a second quicker than the Briton’s. The undercut was visibly significant.
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At this point the lead Mercedes was still around half-way round the lap with another 30 seconds until a pit call needed to be made. There may have even been enough time – just – to bring Hamilton in after the freshly-clad Bottas had set a middle sector time 0.6s quicker than his team-mate, too, though that would have been incredibly tight.
Why, then? It is possible that with Hamilton’s lead starting to extend beyond three seconds and Verstappen losing larger chunks of time they were lulled into a false sense of security.
On lap 18 Hamilton radioed his team to say, “pace is still okay”. It was: relatively but not ultimately. He may have been gaining on Verstappen when they both were on older tyres (and, in fact, no worse than Leclerc and Ricciardo on new ones), but with it clear that the Red Bull would have to stop to cover Bottas, his pace should have been more of a worry against a front-running car on new tyres in Verstappen. Mercedes looked like they were thinking about what was happening rather than what might happen.
Still, had it not been Verstappen he was up against; the story may have been different. The championship rivals went into the first corner together, but Verstappen with greater momentum and the inside line. At the crunch time, Verstappen made up likely an entire two seconds on Hamilton on the final sector of his out lap alone. That, as much as, the questionable call, was the crux. But Mercedes passivity made it a possibility.
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Could Mercedes have made up for it by stopping again?
The race was far from done by that point. Throughout the second stint, the top three drivers questioned how long their hard tyres would last. Hamilton, with Bottas right behind, was within a second of Verstappen for the first 10 laps of his second stint.
It looked like Spain all over again. Then Mercedes pulled the trigger in moving then second-placed Hamilton to a two-stop strategy. It worked, as Hamilton hunted down his rival and made the race-winning move with seven laps remaining. Red Bull clearly feared the same happening in France, with the Mercedes again looking far better on Sunday than it did in qualifying on Saturday.
Frustrated at losing the lead at the first stops, Hamilton implored his team to bring him in first if they had to stop again in order to get the advantage, but his team did not listen. As Hamilton dropped back slightly (to 2.4 seconds), Red Bull made their move with 21 laps left. The signs that a two-stop may be preferable were there – the early-stopping Leclerc had started to drop back dramatically.
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Verstappen’s huge tyre advantage was enough for the win in the end, but he had to wait until the penultimate lap for his moment. This time, unlike in Bahrain, he made it stick.
Was this another critical strategy error from Mercedes? Arguably, but it was made to look worse by Red Bull’s aggressive choice and their own inaction. Responding to Verstappen would have made little sense, but the question is whether they should have struck first to regain the lead. The opportune time would have been as soon as Hamilton started to drop back more than a couple of seconds behind Verstappen. Instead they dithered.
The biggest question is why they did not at least try a two-stop strategy with Bottas if not Hamilton. He ran with comparable pace to his team-mate for most of the race but was hung out to dry and lost a podium spot to Sergio Pérez. That is the stranger decision.
Bottas had his own message for Mercedes towards the end of the race. “Why the f— does no one listen to me when I say that it’s going to be a two-stopper? F—— hell!”
The final two words probably sum up the feeling for the entire Mercedes team as they head to Austria, on the back foot as much as they have ever been since the start of their dominance in the hybrid era.