The 2022 French GP may have been the last we see for the immediate future as the Paul Ricard contract expires with F1 this season. The Castellet circuit contract is unlikely to be renewed due to poor infrastructure for the fans and a capacity of merely 70,000 spectators on race day. Further, the teams have refused to agree to more than 24 races a season and with the introduction of Las Vegas and the hopeful reintroduction of Shanghai, European races will need to be shed.
The final race at the Paul Ricard circuit was a fascinating battle between two different car design concepts. The initial portion of the race saw the high downforce Ferrari of Charles Leclerc hold off the far quicker low downforce Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
Yet as is too often the case this season, Ferrari threw away a winning hand when Charles Leclerc comfortably in front lost traction and went flying into the barrier.
To make matters worse, Carlos Sainz who had started P19 due to engine penalties had fought his way into the top three and was closing on Lewis Hamilton when the team decided to pit him with less than 10 laps to go. The Spanish driver rejoined in P10 but could only recover to finish 5th.
Mattia Binotto was his usual phlegmatic self when interviewed after the race backing his team’s strategy despite criticism from race analysts.
“We are pretty sure it was the right choice because at the time his tyres were short on life so it was risky to go to the end,” coos Binotto.
“We don’t think he would have had the pace to open the 5 seconds because he had a 5 second penalty and by stopping we did the fastest lap which was another point.”
“I think it was the safest and the right decision”
When asked whether it cost Sainz a place or two
“”I Donn’t think so. If he had stayed out he wouldn’t have opened the gap by 5 seconds.”
Yet Sainz had a different view on proceedings
“I believed, at the time, it was maybe better to risk it and stay out and see what happened with the tyres, even if it was a Medium tyre on the limit of the life, but I had just made it to P3 and I said, ‘If I make these tyres last, maybe I can finish on the podium’, but we will never know,” added Sainz.
Unlike Mercedes and Red Bull, Ferrari appear to have a chaotic process evidenced on pit radio over strategy. The team make a call and the driver’s often query it. The team strategists then regularly change their mind over the planned stop creating the impression of uncertainty.
Sainz conceded grudgingly, ”The team has a lot more data on the computer, they have a lot more numbers to go through, and if they took that decision, I’m 100 per cent convinced that they did it with the best of intentions.”
Clearly the Spaniard believes they made the wrong decision and cost him a podium as he resorts to the defence that their intentions were at least ‘the best’. Sainz then calls for progression and improvement in this area of Ferrari’s F1 operations adding;
“We need to keep progressing and we need to analyse everything and see how we can be better, but I’m convinced the team is doing a good job.”
He ‘doth protest too much’, methinks.
The Spaniard’s conclusion left us in no doubt of his views on the strategy ton pit him from P3.
“A podium position, I think with a perfect race, we could have made it,” said Sainz.
In a bizarre revelation, a TJ13 source close to Ferrari believes the strategists are very unhappy with Charles Leclerc. All weekend pundits like Paul di Resta and Nico Rosberg were convinced Ferrari had got it wrong setting up their cars with a high downforce package.
The lower downforce Red Bull was hugely superior in top speed and was thought to be able to blow past the Ferrari’s on the straights with DRS. Yet LeClerc kept Max Verstappen at bay until the Red Bull driver pitted for fresh hard tyres on lap 15.
Despite joining the field in traffic, Verstappen was able to clear the cars ahead of him on old tyres and had closed the gap to LeClerc to 17 seconds. A pit stop under green flag conditions at the Paul Ricard circuit takes about 28 seconds.
Why Ferrari didn’t react to Verstappen’s stop is one of the many mystery decisions made by the team last Sunday. Verstappen had proven overtaking was difficult even with a top a huge top speed advantage.
Ferrari had simply lost LeClerc the lead.
Then came the fateful moment when Charles Leclerc hit the wall and ironically gave cheap pit stops to the rest of the field under the safety car. Despite getting a 10 second advantage as the lost time changing tyres was now reduced to about 18 seconds, Verstappen demonstrated the power of the undercut by emerging at the front of the field.
Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto has been playing down Ferrari’s ambitions all season claiming as long as they improve on last year this will be mission accomplished.
However the 64 point gap between LeClerc and Verstappen should be much less. Silly errors in pit stop strategy in Monaco cost the Monegasque driver 13 points. DNF’s due to engine failure add up to another 50 points. LeClerc’s driver error in Iola cost 7 points and another 25 points went begging at the French GP.
This is a team well capable of winning the driver’s championship this year, yet it appears to be coasting to mediocrity.
The result will inevitably be tensions rising within Ferrari. Carlos Sainz openly disagreed with his teams strategy pulling him in from P3 and a possible P2 finish and the strategists are not happy with LeClerc because his DNF meant they were unable to answer their Neysayers.
Roll on Hungary