Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 25° Track 42° Humidity 50% Wind 1.2 m/s
The bright blue sky was studded with clouds, not just the usual cotton balls but off in the far distance, slightly more ominous, perhaps even threatening, a dark grey wall loomed, perhaps the sole remaining hope for an exciting race in the minds of many. But with Ferrari starting on the Ultrasofts vs Mercedes and Red Bull on the Supers, some opportunity for strategic skullduggery existed. Unfortunately, a low pitlane speed limit and lengthier than usual delta were pushing the teams in the opposite direction, toward the stultifying one stop.
Perhaps an even bigger scandal was the utter chaos that was traffic to and from the circuit, the local authorites having been caught out by the thoroughly predictable number of people traveling to and from the circuit each day. Even Vettel and Grosjean had to argue their way past the police, despite having the correct paperwork and team kit. Word from the media center was equally grim, with track officials completely impervious to the pleas of journos to put the timing screens on at the start of qualifying, as they would not do so till the FIA approved it…..
In the race, the battle between HAAS and Leclerc were likely to be the early focus of attention. Longer term, preservation of tyres and looking for the undercut at the front. Horner was realistic in his interview, stating his fight was with Ferrari and barring a poor start by both Mercedes driver, likely the fight for Ferrari was going to be for a podium at best. Which spot remained to be seen as Bottas’ lack of FP2 and FP3 running might have a knock on effect on his ability to maintain his tyres. Of course, the rain in FP3 also did a number on Ferrari, who typically would dial in the overnight changes rocked up in the sim. On the way to the grid, and the rain, if it was to come, was predicted for the
Lights Out!!!! Rocking start from Vettel then carnage as he hit Bottas into T1. Leclerc taking advantage of the chaos was up the inside and past Raikkonen. Then Ocon out as well with contact, right rear off and race run. Hamilton, Verstappen, Sainz Ricciardo Magnussen and Leclerc led the way and given the utter disaster at the start no surprise that the safety car was out. Bottas had collected a rear left puncture from Vettel’s front wing, and as Sebastian boxed, it was a small bit of good news as the SC would limit his losses. Both drivers were into the pits for new tyres, both going with the Softs. Stroll, Sirotkin and Alonso all followed suit looking to go long and save themselves the cost of a pitstop under green. Ocon and Gasly were both out, as Gasly was the other player in Ocon’s tragedy. On replay, Vettel had locked up heading to the inside of T1 and took Bottas out, and into T5 Gasly took out Ocon from behind after Ocon switched sides and the Toro Rosso driver was unable to react quickly enough. Vettel further compounded his error by taking Grosjean off at T4, and completing the fall of dominos, Grosjean hammered Ocon down the straight to T1, visibly breaking the Force India’s suspension before Gasly completed the job several turns later.
The SC was in lap 5 and Lewis went early, Verstappen was on him but not close enough for a move. However, Leclerc was close enough to have a go on Kmag into T1, putting serious pressure on the HAAS driver. That dream didn’t last long, as Raikkonen nailed the young Sauber driver down the Mistral straight. Alonso had an issue into T3, a spin aided by the very close pass of Vettel, into P15 for the moment. Leclerc, meanwhile had gone from predator to prey, as Rogro lined him up but was unable to pierce the stout defense of the Sauber.
Vettel had continued his progress up the field, dispatching Ericsson easily into the chicane on the Mistral straight, 18 seconds back of the leader. 2 places back, Bottas, too was working hard on his redemption as well, slightly aided by the penalty Vettel collected, a 5 second time penalty for being silly at the start.
Up at the front, the status quo began to reassert itself, Ricciardo braking late and dipping around Sainz for P3 and Raikkonen, after taking some time, bouncing Kmag from P4. This set the battle for best of the rest up very neatly as Kmag had roughly a 2.5 second gap to close to the Renault of Sainz.
Lap 11 and Vettel continued his forward march, into the points with a neat pass on Hulkenberg. Bottas, after being stuck behind Vandoorne for a bit, got the job done and continued to shadow Vettel through the field, with one or two cars in between them.
3 laps later and it was Perez who went down to the Ferrari, as Valterri continued his search for the key to unlock Hulkenberg. As Vettel’s metronomic assault on the midfield continued, the stewards announced that Grosjean was under investigation for leaving the circuit at T4 and gaining an advantage.
Bottas nabbed Perez with a magnificently late move into T1 kept it around the outside in T2 and continued on with his chase of Hulkenberg, who had earlier gotten round the outside of the Force India into T8. Grosjean was driving backwards and was next up for the Renault driver.
Vettel, meanwhile, had caught up with the Cinderalla story of Charles Leclerc. But all the skills of the young driver were no match for the ever so much faster Ferrari, never mind the fact that defending against Vettel would just have cost him time against the cars he was actually racing.
Vettel’s ascent to P6 on the 18th lap rather interestingly coincided with Hamilton awakening from his slumber at the front and putting in fastest lap of the race. With the pit window at 24 seconds and Lewis 28 seconds up on Vettel, the motivation for Mercedes was obvious: keep Vettel out of Hamilton’s pit window at all costs. The race was now on.
Vettel rocked past Kmag the following lap, leaving Sainz the last of the midfield for him to dispatch, a feat which took him nary a half lap. But the effort was costly, as Hamilton had added nearly 2 seconds to the deficit the Ferrari driver faced, now 30 seconds between the pair. Making matters worse, the sky had turned black and what looked like a rather proper rainstorm was poised to appear in roughly 20 minutes, if team radio was to be trusted. That looked to be around lap 34-36, perhaps a bit long for the Supers (except, perhaps for the Safety Car laps), but no effort at all for Bottas and Vettel who had been on the Softs since their first lap pit stops.
Bottas, though, was looking at his own issue, perhaps some unsighted aero damage, was stuck behind Hulkenberg and watching the time to Vettel increase each lap, nearly 14 seconds on lap 24. Hulkenberg rocked it by Leclerc on that same lap and it was now a Magnussen filling in a Renault eclair, stuck between Sainz and Hulkenberg.
Verstappen in lap 26!! out on the Soft tyre as it was now on Mercedes to make a choice, which is what Red Bull wanted. Worth noting Verstappen was running less DF and may have been suffering a bit more on the tyres than Ricky Danny. 0.2 seconds S2 for Max, and the same in S3. Sirotkin got dinged for running slow under the Safety Car.
Lap 28 Sainz was in, and on the way out Ericsson just got in front of him on his exit. Not for long, as Carlos quickly cleared the Swede. Looking at the timing screens, Hamilton was keeping pace with Verstappen as Bottas got past leclerc.
Lap 29 and Ricciardo was in, but Red Bull had left it too late and he was out BEHIND Vettel, but with much fresher tyres. Shades of Monaco as it began to look more and more like Mercedes wanted to run Hamiton till the rains came, thus skipping a pitstop. Magnussen had cycled through the pits meanwhile and was chasing Sainz back up through the slower runners, getting Hartley for P12. Grosjean got dinged for causing a collision T1, a 5 second penalty announced at the same time, from the start of the race.
Leclerc was in lap 32, choosing the Supers for his final stint, but losing a full 9 seconds in taking it long. Lap 33 and Mercedes was through waiting for the rains, as Verstappen’s times were now plummeting into the mid 35’s and Lewis was no longer able to keep up on his old set of Supers. Out on the Softs he went, well in front of Verstappen as Ricciardo opened up DRS on Vettel. Into T11 and Vettel missed his braking, went in too deep and Ricciardo was by him and off as Raikkonen was finally in for a set of Supers, lap 35, the rains apparently having chosen to go in a different direction than the circuit.
Raikkonen on the Supersofts was into the 34’s and set a new fast lap, but had a fairly tall hill to climb, with a 20 second deficit to the front and 15 laps to get the job done. Hulkenberg wsa in lap 38 as Leclerc got perilously close to climbing into his pit window, but Nico was out on the Ultra’s. The presence of Hartley between them was the barrier the Renault driver needed as it gave him time to get his tyres up to temperature without the threat of the Sauber.
The following lap, Vettel let Raikkonen by and he was looking 8 seconds up the road and targetting Ricciardo in P3. Lap 40 and Bottas was in, surprising everyone, and it was a slow stop, back into 9th just behind Vandoorne on the Supers. Again, damage from the first lap hit likely was contributing to the tyres going off. His stop, though, opened the door for Ferrari to bring Vettel back in for the Ultrasofts, because, why not. Vettel was back out in P5, while Bottas was just now up to P8, having cleared Hulkenberg in the meantime.
The timings favoured Bottas to get back round Kmag and Sainz well before the end of the race, as his fresh tyres were giving him an advantage of nearly 2 seconds a lap over the midfielders. Ferrari was convinced that Ricciardo had a problem and encouraged Kimi to stay on the hunt, as the last of the podium spots was just 4 seconds over the horizon and approaching rather quickly. Lap 45 and it was down to 2 seconds when Ricciardo encountered Stroll, who made an absolute mess of not getting out of the way at all, costing the Red Bull driver well more than a second.
Into DRS went Raikkonen, briefly, before dropping back a bit, but undeniably the Williams put Ricciardo right into the firing line of the Ferrari with his ham handed tactics. Into T1 inside outside attempt but Ricky Danny had that one covered. Into T6 they went, Ricciardo on the power early, but defenseless into the chicane with the power advantage of the Ferrari. Off went Kimi into clear air, but with 20 seconds to Verstappen, the podium looked set barring accident.
4 laps to go and it was Bottas, doing his best to get by Magnussen that was the closest fight on track. Valterri was just out of DRS and it was a battle for position to the end for the wounded Mercedes against the HAAS, about as fair a fight as one could imagine to see out the end of the rest. Horner mentioned that Ricciardo lost a chunk of front wing, giving the Red Bull rather less helpful large doses of understeer when he encountered the back markers.
2 laps to go and bang! Stroll was off and missing large pieces of his car with a blown tyre as Sainz tragically suffered a power loss. Magnussen by, Bottas by and then the VSC was out for the carcass of the Williams, momentarily preserving his P8. Well, French race, French team that’s going to look bad no matter how deserved the VSC was. On replay, the tyre that blew for Stroll was the one he had massively abused about 5 or 6 laps prior, when he locked up his front left behind a McLaren.
Less than a lap to go and the VSC was in and almost immediately Alonso was going slow, his left rear wheel suddenly sporting a gigantic positive camber, bringing out the yellows again in S2. Hamilton crossed the line with no real threat, followed by Verstappen and Raikkonen. The VSC robbed Bottas of whatever chance he might’ve had at Kmag and it was Ricciardo, Vettel and Kmag all finishing just ahead of him. Sainz held onto P8 followed home by Hulkenberg, no word as to whether his power issues were sorted, and then Leclerc taking the final point on the same lap as the leaders.
A dismal day for Grosjean, Williams, Gasly and Renault. In particular Sainz, losing P6 with just a few laps left to their fiercest rivals no doubt hurt at their home Grand Prix. But not as much as the financially strapped Force India team, losing Ocon on lap 1 to an accident and then Perez later in the race with PU issues was just about the last thing they needed, given their precarious championship standing. Vettel will likely be kicking himself for days about the T1 incident, but Raikkonen taking some points of Ricciardo will help ease the sting of Hamilton taking a 14 point lead in the WDC. Mercedes, too, left points on the table, and even though it was in no way their fault, not the optimum result from a front row lockout.
Red Bull were no doubt delighted to get Verstappen into P2, as that certainly would not have been what they originally thought possible, but the damage to Ricciardo’s wing, combined with the feel free to describe it as you wish driving of Stroll, cost them any shot they might’ve had at a double podium. Leclerc delivered on his promise, keeping it in the points and out of the wall and delighting fans of the underdog. But if you were a race fan, given the gloom and doom forecast, it wound up being a far more interesting race than expected. And we get to do it all over again, deja vu style, next week…..
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