Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor Mattpt55
Ambient 26° Track 55° Humidity 48% Wind 2.0m/s
IT was brutally hot under the paradisiacal skies of the Circuit Paul Ricard, mountains in the distance shimmering in a heat haze and the sun hammering relentlessly down on the track and spectators alike, no mercy in it’s unblinking gaze… It was a week to roll the dice for Renault, who had brought a fairly large upgrade (including a brand new PU, though only for Ricciardo) to the track in an effort to justify the immense investment into the program by the manufacturer, weak on results till Canada, nonetheless it was still McLaren who looked to be best of the rest after the free practices had concluded, an embarassment only slightly eased by the fact that of the other midfield teams they were closest, with a real shot on race pace of having a good result.
Red Bull also was sporting a fancy new upgrade of their Honda Power Unit, but it was only doing them so much good as the combination of wind and heat was leaving them rather adrift in the balance department, along with every other team save, quelle surprise, Mercedes, especially in the crucial 3rd sector, where the tyres were generally not being cooperative (with track temps over 50°C who could really blame them) and leading to multiple offs and mistakes, with even the teams and drivers not certain how or when they could keep them in the window throughout the whole lap. To be fair, both Mercedes drivers had their fair share of offs chasing lap times as well, but at the end of FP3 it was Bottas by half a tenth, with Ferrari the closest, Leclerc being 0.4 seconds back.
The FIA had also issued a plethora of technical directives, the real rules, available only to the teams and not released to the public (coff coff it’s about frickin time they did coff coff) which targeted specifically rear wings, where teams had been being clever with the positioning of bolts to allow them to flex backwards and shed drag on the straights. Also included was the air temperature in the plenum, which really no one cares about but could now be measured directly whilst the cars were being driven, versus a temperature taken an hour before the race start. Finally, and this is a biggie (well sort of) some of the teams were suspected of using the MGU-H to run the turbo off throttle and blow air through the wastegate and exhaust while the driver was off throttle to add downforce through turns.
The best news about the circuit is that its very, very easy for any driver to make a mistake, which adds a certain amount of randomness and excitement, but should all go to plan its very much going to be a race between Mercedes, then Ferrari with Red Bull being just clear of the Formula B frontrunners. Amongst the midfield, its Macca v Renault and then a fight amongst the rest to see who might be able to steal the magical P11 with its free choice of start tyre. Given how poorly the Softs have done in long runs, it could well be the best midfield starting position. At the sharp end, it will be a look to see if anyone can make it through Q2 on the Medium tyre, which all teams have enjoyed much more…
Green Light!! Kvyat, Russell, Perez, were first out of the gate, everyone on the Softs and most of the midfield wasting little time on rocking onto the track. Traffic was immediately a problem on the first runs, with Raikkonen having a big off and rolling back on directly in front of Grosjean, which did the struggleing HAAS driver no favors. Russell had to change control electronics and ERS and was looking at a possible penalty as the early runners saw, to the surprise of no one, Sainz at the top, McLaren having looked surprisingly the class of the midfield.
Giovinazzi was in P2, then Albon and Norris as the sharp end hung in the garage, waiting patiently. Ferrari were first out and as the clock headed toward the 10 minute mark it was Leclerc ahead of Vettel as Mercedes hurtled round the track, Bottas first across the line a mere 0.063 seconds ahead of Leclerc and Hamilton just 0.083 seconds behind, having gone a bit wide through the last turn….
Ricciardo, with a Renault’s latest PU strapped to the back of his car, rocked into P6, displacing Gasly from that spot and just a few hundredths off Sainz as Verstappen languished in P13. in the drop zone with 7 minutes to go were Perez, Magnussen, Russell, Kvyat and Kubica. While that drama was on, Mercedes and Ferrari had at it and this time it was Bottas, Hamilton and Leclerc with less than a tenth between each driver. Verstappen was back on it then and his second go was much more satisfying, P4 this time round as the wind picked up.
Under 5 minutes then and it was back onto the track for the midfield and on first runs it was Magnussen, looking suddenly very fast and up to P6 as track evolution continued. Kvyat slotted into P7 just behind him and in the drop zone with less than 2 minutes left were Albon, Stroll, Perez, Russell and Kubica. Both Norris and Sainz suddenly rocked ahead of Vettel and both he and Norris had rolled Vettel down to P8 and then Perez and Raikkonen made it P10. Magnussen was down to P12 and as the checquers fell it was Kvyat, Grosjean, Stroll, Russell and Kubica driving to make Q2. This had caught Red Bull out rather badly, as the track evolution had suddenly sent the times plummeting and Verstappen was down to P14 with Albon on the bubble, with Stroll and Magnussen still to come around. Stroll was unable to do beans and remained P18 and Grosjean abandoned his effort, rolling into the pits and as the dust cleared, it was Kvyat, Grosjean, Stroll, Russell and Kubica with nowhere to go but off in search of some bouillabaisse as the rest turned it around for the rigors of Q2. Some incidents to be investigated, both involving Raikkonen, one where he rejoined and balked Grosjean, and the other where a slow Ricciardo had balked him…..
Q2 opened up with Bottas leading the way, joined by Norris, Hamilton, Hulkenberg and Sainz. Verstappen, Magnussen, Ricciardo and Gasly were next off the blocks, trailed by Raikkonen and Giovinazzi. Mercedes. Ferrari AND McLaren had all chosen to have a go on the Mediums and when Red Bull finally rolled out it was Verstappen on the Medium as well and Gasly on the Soft. Vote of no confidence or split strategy would then be the question for the discerning viewer as the Mercedes drivers swapped purple sectors, with Hamilton getting the better of Bottas this time round, going 1:29.520and Bottas nearly half a second back!!! Whoa…. Leclerc was a further half second off and then Verstappen and Vettel just a tenth back. Gasly could maanage no better than P8 which, yeah, not a good look to be honest, as Ricciardo, Perez, Norris and Albon were still to set a time. Bottas then got it together, and on his second run, rocked ahead of Hamilton, by a tenth, 1:29:437 a stupendous time indeed on the Medium tyre, though that will be an extra lap on his start tyre should he not come back out and set a new time…..
Leclerc was next to rock up to the 1:29s, maintaining his half second gap as it began to look increasingly like a last second track evolution lottery to make the hallowed ground of Q3. 5 minutes left and it was Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Magnussen Ricciardo and Norris on the outside looking in, the latter 2 having yet to set a time. Verstappen had his time deleted for exceeding track limits, and then it was Ricciardo and Norris, both on Mediums having their turn with a mostly empty track. Norris nocked up a P7 and then Ricciardo went him one better as it increasingly looked like the Medium might be the tyre to be running. Bottas and Hamilton rolled out on a set of Softs, as per their usual habit as the track was filled with desperate runners trying to catch that magic moment when the track was going to be at its’s stickiest.
As the final runs commenced it was Gasly down to P12 and as he hit the line it was just P10 for him. Chequers out just as Norris hit the line and went P4. Raikkonen P9 and out went Gasly. Only momentarily as Gasly reclaimed P10, putting Albon out. Hulkenberg bailed, a mistake having done him in on his last chance. Giovinazzi had a wonderful result and went P9 but the stunner had to be Norris AHEAD of Verstappen….. Going no further were Albon, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Perez and Magnussen, off to embrace some Pastis as a cure for their woes as the rest turned it around for the Elysian fields of Q3, where all the glory lay…..
Q3 opened with a bunch of garage sitting, finally ended by McLaren rolling out to the pitlane. Very rapidly the other teams followed suit with Ferrari being last and Vettel being a bit lackadaisical to get underway. Bit of smoke from the back of Bottas as he was on his outlap and the plan (if it was ever a plan)to give Sainz a tow seemed to have gon rather far awry as both Red Bulls and both Mercedes had overtaken him. 1:28.605 for Bottas then a 1:28.448 for Hamilton…. Leclerc went 1:29 and Vettel had to take to the pitlane with a missed upshift and looking very unsettled. This left Verstappen P4 and then the McLarens, with Sainz in the lead as best of the rest. Ricciardo outpointed Gasly and neither Vettel nor Giovinazzi had set a time. It was all on then as the cars slowly circled round to the pitlane for the final tweaks to find that last bit of time….
3:30 and off they went, with Giovinazzi leading the way, followed by Bottas and Hamilton, then Gasly, Sainz, Norris and Ricciardo. Then a long gap and Verstappen, Vettel and Leclerc finished it up looking to get maximum condition for their final go…..
Both Mercedes passed Giovinazzi and they were to be first off in search of pole, Bottas leading Hamilton…Sector 1 went the way of Hamilton with neither improving. Sector 2 loaded Hamilton up, going purple and then Sector 3 confirmed the result going a bit faster with a 1:28.319. No improvement for Bottas and then Sainz went P4, before Norris went P4 and then Verstappen put an end to the fun, going P4 for real. Leclerc was in to P3, into the 1:28s and just under 4 tenths off Bottas, and Vettel, after abandoning his first run, could only go P7, with Ricciardo, Gasly and Giovinazzi rounding out the top 10.
There will certainly be a bit of forensic accounting for Vettel’s reported mechanical difficulties, but it will be hard to escape the fact that the Ferrari driver has always preferred a planted rear end and this track, with these tyres and aero regulations have made the cars at this track anything but, very tail happy indeed…
So it will be officially a race to T1 then, between the Mercedes teammates, for even if Leclerc should get ahead, unlike Canada, Paul Ricard offers overtaking opportunites that aren’t just DRS driven. Normally you’d think mistakes could also play a role, and they may well in the the midfield, but the fact is in order to get a one stopper working the drivers are so far away from their margins that only their outlaps from the pitstops and the start will offer them the chance to get it wrong….. The exciting race might well be between Verstappen and the McLaren’s as he took P4 by the narrowest of margins, 0.009 seconds and no, that’s the correct number of zeroes. There is Vettel out of place to consider as well but P7 should see him able to make progress although his first lap last year was, well, less than clean. It falls once again to the midfield to spice things up then, and Renault has shown decent race pace and if Macca can’t take it to the Max (get it) then the battle between them and Ricciardo should keep the cameras occupied. It’s a hash further back and the strategy of going long won’t be as useful as the wide track with multiple overtaking spots will reduce the likelihood that going long early could make up for a lack of pace…..
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