Can Red Bull really beat Mercedes at any Circuit?

It’s father’s day this weekend, (not sure if that is also the case in USA?) but either way, I (that is to say @F1TheaJ) have been asked to stand in for the usual writer of Qualifying and Race reviews, our Matt.  Having already not been able to fill those boots and failed to produce a qualifying review on time, I am now going to attempt to do a qualifying and race review in the same document…….Here goes…..


The Circuit Paul Ricard was built in 1969 in La Castellet, near Marseille, financed by the Pastis (Absinth substitute) magnate Paul Ricard. The circuit was opened in 1970, holding the first F1 GP in 1971. The original circuit was 5.8 km long and was extensively used for testing until 1986 when Elio de Angelis was killed in an accident there. This resulted in the main track being modified (reducing the length of the Mistral straight) and bypassing the Verierre chicane.


Fourteen  GP races were held there between 1971 and 1990, when the French GP was moved to Magny-Cours where it ran until 2008. From 1971 to 1980 this circuit used to be a pretty good indicator as to who would win the WDC, as many drivers who won here went on to win the WDC. After 1990 it was used for motorcycling races. In 1999 it was sold to one of Bernie Ecclestone’s companies and was refurbished and relaunched as an advanced test track, known as the Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track (PRHTTT) before reverting to the pure and simple Circuit Paul Ricard.

 This circuit was announced as the host for the 2018 F1 GP in 2016 and was used for testing by Pirelli on three occasions in 2017.

The race track itself is 5.842KM long, 53 laps of which make up the 309.69km race distance. The track record of 1:32.740 was set in 2019 by Sebastian Vettel, racing for Ferrari. The clockwise track is built on a plane and therefore has very minor elevation changes throughout its length. It has 20 corners and two DRS zones. If drivers can get DRS activations in both zones on the same lap, allegedly it can knock 0.7s off their lap time ( according to Martin Brundle).  Michael Schumacher holds the record for the greatest number of wins at this track (8), followed by Alain Prost (6) and Louis Chiron (5). Of the current cohort of drivers, Lewis Hamilton has won twice (will he make it three wins this weekend?), Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso have both won one each.   

The Circuit Paul Ricard has an even distribution of high-, medium- and low-speed corners is a key reason why it’s one of the most used test circuits in the world (the typically good weather is another). F1 drivers are said to love the 290km/h right-hander at Signes and the 5g joyride of the following Beausset bend.

The tyre allocations for this race are the same as in 2019, namely Hard (C2), Medium (C3), and Soft (C4).

With Perez winning at  Baku last time out, and Verstappen only leading the championship by four points ahead of Hamilton, this will be a very ‘interesting’ race. Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, said ‘If we can beat them (Mercedes) here, we can beat them anywhere.’ Bold words, but are they true? We’ll just have to wait and see……………………..


Well, the 2021 scenario is nothing like  2019: In 2018 Vettel, driving for Ferrari, was leading the WDC by one point and we were looking at what could have been the best season in several years. Not so this year; Verstappen is leading the WDC by 4 points ahead of Hamilton, and Vettel, now driving as a second fiddle for Aston Martin,(Ahem, having scored approximately three times more points than the No1 driver at Aston Martin already this year, that label is questionable).  It really does look as if the championship(s) are nowhere near done and dusted for this year.

Mercedes seemed to be struggling in Free Practice (that is to say, Hamilton seemed to be struggling, as Bottas was higher up the leader board in each of the three sessions), but Verstappen had a whopping 0.7s lead over nearest rival Bottas in FP3, could this possibly be real or were Mercedes sandbagging? Hamilton and Bottas have changed chassis for this race, a move Mercedes claimed had been on the cards for, oh, ages. Red Bull, on the other hand, put a new power unit into Verstappen’s car (Mercedes had new p.u.s last time out at Baku).

Having fiddled with the car extensively overnight, Hamilton came into qualifying with a completely new set-up.  Track limits were being stringently enforced by the stewards (rather than, say, building a wall) and lap times for breaching track limits at turn 6, (but not turn 2) were being deleted this qualifying session. The track temperature at the beginning of qualifying was 45 degrees centigrade.


Q1: It took Tsunoda a matter of minutes to bring out the first red flag of qualifying as he careered into the barriers at turn 1 on his first lap out of the pits. Unable to restart his engine he was first to leave qualifying. (The Alpha Tauri put on a pretty good twerking exhibition on that transit across the gravel, as car and transmission were battling it out as to which direction the car would actually travel).  Stroll had his lap time deleted for exceeding track limits and Verstappen put in the fastest lap of 1:31.001,  a mere 0.2s ahead of the nearest Mercedes (Hamilton). The second Red Bull (Perez) clocked the third fastest time. The session was red-flagged for the second time by Mick Schumacher who hit the barriers with not enough minutes left on the clock to restart the session. Latifi, Raikkonen, Mazepin and Stroll all had their final flying laps compromised as a result and joined Tsunoda in leaving Q1. Mick Schumacher got through to Q2, but sadly, his car did not.


Q2:  The medium tyres were on for this part of qualifying (for the top teams, at least), as this is the set of tyres they will have to use to start the race. Bottas was quickest (1:30.734) ahead of Hamilton, Perez, Verstappen, Sainz, Gasly, Norris, Alonso Leclerc and  Ricciardo. Out were Ocon, Vettel, Giovanazzi, Russel and Michael Schumacher, who didn’t actually take part.


Q3:  On the first flying lap of Q3, Verstappen went off track at turn 2 (Presque vue?) but set purple times for sectors 2 and 3, taking provisional pole ahead of Hamilton, Perez and Bottas. The final flying lap was touch and go between Verstappen and Hamilton, with Hamilton putting in the quickest Sector one time and Verstappen putting in the fastest time for sectors 2 and 3. Verstappen took pole on 1:29. 990, followed by teammate Perez in P2; next to cross the line was Bottas, pushing Perez into P3, followed by Hamilton who took p2 pushing Bottas into P3 and Perez into P4. The remaining top ten grid slots were taken by Sainz, Gasly, Leclerc, Norris, Alonso and Ricciardo. Well, well, well….if Verstappen wins the race he will be 11 points ahead of Hamilton and leading the championship, but if Hamilton wins he will retake the lead of WDC by 3 championship points. All to play for…… (Sorry if this report is a bit one-sided but does anyone really think the race will be between anyone other than Verstappen and Hamilton?)



Race Day:  Phew, at last I seem to be catching up with myself (as far as reports go, anyway). The last time this race was raced it scored a miserly 2.18/10 from our readers and was voted the worst race of the season. Something tells me it may not be quite the same this time around?

Tyre choices for this race (same as for 2019),  C4, C3 C2.  Rear tyre pressure had been increased by 2 psi to 21 psi. Track temperature was slightly lower than qualifying, 37 degrees centigrade.

How wrong can you be?  In a nutshell, this race was dull as dishwater for 51 of its 53 laps, but a few seconds of excitement on the penultimate lap made it slightly worthwhile (actually, hearing Bottas riled was pretty unusual).  Here goes: I’ll try to make it sound interesting…..

There was a full crowd at the Circuit Paul Ricard, adding to the atmosphere of the moment. The rain earlier in the morning had washed the circuit clean and it was pretty windy at the start of the race. Rosberg said the wind was the factor that could catch many drivers out. He wasn’t wrong.

The top ten drivers started on medium tyres (Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas, Perez, Sainz, Gasly, Leclerc, Norris, Alonso, and Ricciardo), as well as Russel, Schumacher and Latifi (14,15,16) and Tsunoda,(20) who started from the pit lane. The remainder started on hard tyres (Ocon, Vettel, Giovanazzi, Raikkonen, Mazepin and Stroll).

With a very strong feeling of déjà vu, Verstappen careered off track at turn 2, handing the lead to Hamilton. As the collective sigh of ‘well that’s it, then, race over’ was released from the mouths of the (disappointed) audience, no one (or hardly anyone) noticed Vettel had overtaken Ocon for P11 and Norris had left the track at turn 1. With time to catch up, Verstappen put in the fastest lap of the race on lap 2, but was still some way behind Hamilton.  Well, Mercedes stole that valuable point back three laps later as Bottas then put in the fastest lap.

Lap2, saw former WDC, and superhero (to many), Alonso slip back through the field as he was overtaken by Ricciardo, Norris and Vettel to end up out of the points. On the upside, Bottas also slid off track and Stroll moved up through the ranks to P13 when he overtook Giovanazzi.

Coming as a surprise to most drivers, the tyre degradation was higher than expected, and the rumour was the teams would have to pit two laps earlier than planned. A one-stop strategy was thought to be the order of the day, as the time in the pits was some 25 seconds. Leclerc was overtaken by Ricciardo on lap 15 before pitting from P8, to emerge in p19. Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher also pitted .

If ever there was a race where the undercut is king, this circuit was vying for the crown. To try to undercut* Gasly, Ricciardo pitted on lap 16. The strategy worked, as when Gasly emerged from the pits on the following lap, he was behind Ricciardo (hurray!! went the collective cheer of the McLaren fans). 

Riciardo had also managed to overtake Sainz as well, so double whammy. *(where the team does a flying in lap, pits early, and then does a faster out lap on fresh tyres than the car they are trying to overtake manages on what has now become their in lap, as they try to cover the first car pulling an undercut on them).

On Lap 18 Verstappen made what was expected to be his first and only pitstop of the day, emerging in P3 (from P2). Hamilton then covered Verstappen’s pitstop but the undercut also worked for Verstappen, as Hamilton came out BEHIND Verstappen , in P3 (from P1).

This left Perez (Red Bull) leading the race. Bottas had pitted on lap 17 and it was not until lap 24 that Perez pitted (always good at preserving tyres, that guy).  A couple of laps later, on fresh tyres, Bottas again set the fastest lap of the race so far.

By lap 30 the running order was Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas, Perez, Vettel, Stroll, Ricciardo Sainz, Norris and Gasly. The three front runners all said their hard tyres would not last the race at the pace they were running. The Mercedes engineers told their drivers to stick to their agreed strategy (i.e. one stop for now).  If they converted to a two stop, they would lose 25seconds, and track position, but would have new fresh tyres with which to catch up. So, decisions, decisions (If you remember, Mercedes switched strategy a couple of races ago which allowed Hamilton to overtake Verstappen very late in the race, to take the race and keep P1 in the WDC).

Two laps later, Red Bull bit the bullet, pulled Verstappen into the pits and put him not a two stop strategy, moving from the hard to medium tyre, and emerging from the pits in P4, from the lead of P1, effectively handing the lead and possibly the race (?) to Hamilton. By Lap 34, Verstappen had caught his teammate who offered no resistance to being passed for P3.

Stroll was the first of the Aston Martin team to pit from the hard tyre to the medium on Lap 34,(emerging in P14)  with Vettel following suit three laps later (emerging in P11). Vettel quickly got back into the points by overtaking Tsunoda for P10.

With 10 laps to go, Verstappen was within DRS range of Bottas and overtook him on Lap 44 for P2. Verstappen was now free to pursue Hamilton and set the fastest lap of the race.

By Lap 49, Perez had overtaken Bottas, for P3 and Bottas was now off the podium. He was not amused. For the first time (possibly ever?) Bottas lost it with the team asking why nobody ever listened to him? That they should have moved onto a two stop strategy ages ago etc etc. Interesting.


On the penultimate lap, the inevitable happened and Verstappen took the lead and finished in P1, increasing his lead in WDC to ELEVEN points ahead of Hamilton. With TWO drivers on the podium, and scoring 40 (25+15)points to Mercedes 30 (18+12) Red Bull also increased their lead in WCC as well. Not only that, but Verstappen (and hence Red Bull)  won an extra point for the fastest lap, increasing their respective leads to ) 12 and 37 points ahead of Hamilton and Mercedes.  At the moment the points are Verstappen 131, Hamilton 119, Red Bull 215,  Mercedes 178. Phew.





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