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10 things we learned from F1’s 2021 French GP

After two fairly turgid affairs since returning in 2018, Formula 1 finally enjoyed a memorable French Grand Prix as the title rivals went wheel-to-wheel once again.

Max Verstappen ended Mercedes’ stranglehold on modern-day F1 at Paul Ricard after Red Bull’s aggressive strategy paid off, allowing him to pass Lewis Hamilton on the penultimate lap of the race.

It was a big statement for Red Bull to make in the wider context of the title fight against Mercedes, proving its recent form cannot be put down to the outlier nature of the street tracks.

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 French Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, in Parc Ferme

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

1. Verstappen has everything he needs to win the championship

If there were any lingering doubts about how much of a threat Verstappen was to Hamilton in the F1 title fight this year, then Sunday’s race would have wiped them all away.

Verstappen capitalised on Hamilton’s bad weekend in Monaco to take the lead of the championship, and would have pulled further clear had his left-rear tyre held up four more laps in Baku.

But with Mercedes expected to return to its usual strength at a more traditional track, this was always going to be a weekend that put Red Bull to a truer test.

Yet Verstappen handled everything thrown at him, showing brilliant maturity. He fought back from his Turn 2 mistake on the opening lap, took advantage of the undercut, and then executed Red Bull’s “ballsy” strategy call. At no point did he dither, calmly seeing off Valtteri Bottas for second before taking Hamilton two laps from home to clinch the race win.

It was a weekend that proved Red Bull does have the package to fight Mercedes, but also one where Verstappen showed he can take Hamilton on, literally playing the seven-time world champion at his own game from Hungary 2019 and Spain earlier this year.

We knew he had the talent. But Sunday proved that Verstappen finally has the car capable of taking him to a world championship.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

2. Mercedes was powerless to stop Red Bull after the undercut error

Mercedes has enjoyed the benefit of racing Red Bull two-on-one quite a bit in recent years, such have been the struggles of the driver in the second cockpit.

But in France, Red Bull levelled the playing field. Baku winner Sergio Perez drove a superb race to be a thorn in the side of the Mercedes pit wall, covering off a possible two-stop strategy and even having the pace at the end to grab third from Bottas.

The key strategy error from Mercedes came when it underestimated the power of the undercut. The signs that it was powerful were there as early as lap 15, when first-man-in Charles Leclerc vaulted ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, with the pair then jumping Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz one lap later.

It meant Verstappen’s one-lap advantage over Hamilton paid off handsomely, allowing him to make up a three-second gap – which Mercedes can only account 2.5s of right now – and seize the lead.

It then put Red Bull in control of the race, giving it the chance to roll the dice on a second pit stop that sent Verstappen on his way to victory. Mercedes was powerless to respond, committing to keeping its cars out and hoping Verstappen couldn’t make up the time.

But even if Mercedes had blinked first and brought Hamilton in, Perez would still have been a real problem. The rear-gunner role is one he played perfectly on Sunday…

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

3. Bottas struggled to put up a fight when it was really needed

…which wasn’t something Bottas quite managed to do to the same effect.

After all of the noise about his future and chassis swaps earlier in the weekend, Bottas was in good shape in the race. He’d qualified third and tailed Hamilton and Verstappen early on, and was within 1.5 seconds of the lead after the first round of stops, lurking as a real threat for victory.

But things unravelled towards the end. Bottas again lacked the tyre management skills of his teammate across the garage, leaving him at the mercy of both Red Bulls.

Hamilton was told over the radio that Verstappen’s chances of catching him depended on how much Bottas held him up. But a deep run into the chicane meant Bottas did little to help the situation – Verstappen lost just three-tenths of a second compared to the previous lap.

Bottas made his feelings about the strategy clear over team radio after the race, and his performance was praised by Toto Wolff. But France will have done little to ease any of the speculation about his prospects with Mercedes beyond this year.

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, leads Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, and Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, leads Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, and Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

4. Ricciardo and Alonso are finally coming good with their new teams

While the likes of Perez and Sainz have already seemed quite at home with their new teams in 2021, two bigger names had appeared to struggle more in their adjustment periods.

But in Sunday’s race, both Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso showed the kind of fight they are so well known for, bringing home some decent points hauls for their respective teams.

Sixth place was about the maximum Ricciardo could really achieve in France considering how early he pitted, with Lando Norris having the more favourable strategy at McLaren.

But he’d already pulled lovely moves on Alonso and Charles Leclerc in the opening stint, allowing for some classic Honey Badger radio chat. “When I start to kind of talk a little smack on the radio, it’s a sign that I’m having some fun!” Ricciardo said after the race. “I enjoyed it today.”

Eighth was a decent return for Alonso considering Alpine didn’t have the edge its midfield rivals did in France. We’d already seen signs of the double world champion being back to his old fighting self in the two-lap Baku sprint, when he charged to P6. This weekend, he outpaced Esteban Ocon throughout to lead Alpine’s efforts.

It’s a good sign for both drivers as we go into the Austria back-to-back, after which they’ll hopefully have unlocked even more performance from their cars and be fully over the adjustment phase.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, in the pits

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, in the pits

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

5. Ferrari has a big weakness it may not be able to fix

After the highs of Monaco and Baku, Ferrari came back down to earth with an almighty thump at Paul Ricard as it lost significant ground on McLaren in the fight for third in the constructors’ championship.

Sainz was on it all weekend, qualifying fifth and even putting pressure on Perez in the opening stages. But as he got into the early stages of his second stint, his pace began to plummet as he struggled with front tyre wear.

Sainz was picked off by Norris, Pierre Gasly, Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll, leaving him 11th at the flag – suggesting the car suffered wear twice as bad as its rivals. Ferrari had tried putting Leclerc onto a two-stop strategy, only for blue flags to stop him recovering to any higher than 16th.

Ferrari had expected its form to return to normal in France, but not quite to this extent. The qualifying-to-race drop-off it believed it had remedied in Spain bit hard.

Paul Ricard is always tough on front tyres, meaning the issue may not be quite so bad at other tracks. Yet Mattia Binotto accepted after the race that it is not something he thinks can be quickly fixed this year.

“We may improve the situation but to solve it, I think we need to have some hardware change, like for example the rims, which is not possible with the regulations,” Binotto said. “It’s more important for us at that stage where we can try to understand and address it for next year.”

Ferrari sits 16 points behind McLaren in the constructors’ championship, and can ill afford more weekends like France if it wants to keep the race for third going to the end of the year.

George Russell, Williams

George Russell, Williams

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

6. Russell’s stealth race to 12th was one of his best

Amid all of the buzz around George Russell’s future and the possibility of a move up to Mercedes for next year, the Briton stuck to his guns about focusing on the job at hand with Williams in France.

And he did that brilliantly on Sunday, turning in what he called his “best ever” race with Williams to claim 12th, and importantly move the team back above Haas in the constructors’ championship.

Chances are you will have missed Russell’s rise, for it barely featured in any of the TV coverage. He’d struggled early on after failing to get his tyres into the right window on the formation lap, but found his feet as the stint wore on.

It was on the hards that Russell’s race really came alive. He undercut the drivers who started on hards when they switched to mediums, and kept enough life in his white-banded Pirellis to pass Yuki Tsunoda late on. It was a P12 earned well and truly on merit for Williams.

Williams CEO Jost Capito said earlier in the weekend that he had no concerns that Russell would be distracted by all the fuss about his future, and we saw that in full effect. He deserves huge credit for a display that could end up giving Williams its best constructors’ finish in five seasons.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12 , Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12 , Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

7. The chassis swap at Mercedes did not matter – obviously

The baseless conspiracies that had stemmed from Mercedes’ rather innocuous swap of Hamilton and Bottas’s chassis for France grew a little tiring over the build-up to qualifying, where Hamilton was pleased to disprove what he called a “myth”.

But if we needed any further proof that it didn’t make any difference to their performances, the race will have proved exactly that. Hamilton had a real shot at winning the race, and was clearly at no disadvantage to his teammate. In fact, he didn’t complete a single lap trailing Bottas.

F1 coverage thrives off this kind of drama, particularly between teammates and particularly at Mercedes, but this has been a real non-story that can hopefully be put to bed now. Whenever Mercedes swap the chassis around again – because chances are it will, as is procedure – let’s not get giddy with wild theories of the reasons why.

A marshal waves a red flag as Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21, passes

A marshal waves a red flag as Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR21, passes

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

8. A qualifying red flag rule is surely going to be debated again

For the third race weekend in a row, a red flag in qualifying brought an early end to a session, only adding to the calls for discussions over an IndyCar-style rule in the future.

Whereas the red flags came at the end of Q3 in both Monaco and Baku, this time it was a Q1 shunt for Mick Schumacher that stopped the session. It cost the grid their final runs, proving particularly costly for Stroll, who had not set a time, and inadvertently benefitted Schumacher as he reached Q2 for the first time in his F1 career.

It was a genuine error by Schumacher, nothing like his father’s actions at Monaco 2006 – even if ‘Ras-Haas-gate’ could be quipped in jest – but will again lead to questions about whether there should be some kind of rule to make such mistakes most costly.

Michael Masi has already confirmed it is something F1 will look at as part of its wider reviews of what other championships do. This three-race run is a little peculiar, but shows it is not simply a freak incident that happens very rarely.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, in the pits

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, in the pits

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

9. Paul Ricard can actually deliver a decent F1 race

It was a welcome surprise that we have plenty to talk about on the day after the race, such has been the standard of the two most recent grands prix at Paul Ricard.

Much of the pre-race build-up on social media was dominated by predictions of what lap we’d be asleep by and just how boring the race might be. Those living outside the F1 bubble rightly pointed out that other series often produced quite good races at Paul Ricard – F3 did exactly that on Saturday, when Alexander Smolyar claimed victory on the final lap – so to lambast the track wasn’t always fair.

And the race on Sunday proved just how good it can be when you do have cars that are evenly-matched on performance. Even if Verstappen hadn’t pitted to set up a grandstand finish, we’d likely have been on the edges of our seats seeing if he could keep the Mercedes cars behind at bay.

The tyre struggles certainly helped, but all in all, this was a good weekend for F1 at Paul Ricard, disproving a lot of the criticism that has been chucked its way.

Mario Isola, Racing Manager, Pirelli Motorsport, with Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing

Mario Isola, Racing Manager, Pirelli Motorsport, with Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

10. Teams still don’t have all the answers about Pirelli’s tyre failures

Tyre pressures were the big talking point heading into the Paul Ricard weekend following the failures in Baku, but teams left France still lacking all the answers they wanted.

Pirelli, Red Bull and Aston Martin had issued – to quote Andreas Seidl – “carefully-worded” statements in the lead-up to the weekend that made it hard to see who was at fault. Pirelli later explained that the teams had ran their tyre pressures lower than expected in Baku, causing the failures, but stressed that no rules had been broken.

The drivers were told much the same in a lengthy briefing on Friday evening, when it is understood there was a split in the room in reaction to the findings. But the teams still didn’t have a full picture of what exactly caused the failures – something that Seidl was particularly outspoken about.

“What is a bit disappointing for us is that there is not more transparency in what actually happened, because it was a safety-critical topic,” Seidl said. “Normally, that was a good practice in other cases in the past, with cases like that happening, there is transparency of what is happening, which didn’t happen so far towards the teams.”

The pressures were raised in Paul Ricard – as is standard after such failures – and it stopped being a talking point. But the whole affair has raised more questions than answers, which, as Seidl said, is strange given this is a safety matter, not a performance matter.

Andreas Seidl, Team Principal, McLaren

Andreas Seidl, Team Principal, McLaren

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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