As the last remaining fans trickle from Paul Ricard’s poorly organised car parks, asking questions of large fibreglass gorillas, it’s with dizzying blue stripes burned into our retinas that we look back at a 2018 French Grand Prix that wasn’t as bad as first it seemed…
The event’s first day was marred by reports of horrendous traffic issues getting to the circuit, with some fans giving up on the weekend entirely. The track appeared to offer as much excitement as a traffic jam, too; Paul Ricard has 167 possible layouts, none of them, it seemed on paper, were conducive to great racing.
It seemed the sport’s return to grand prix racing’s birthplace would feature a frustrating, farcical and featureless French Grand Prix. And while the alliteration of that was pleasing, the race itself, while not a classic, did offer intrigue, a first lap calamity and what could be a crucial comeback drive.
F1 RETURNS ‘HOME’
A lot has changed in the ten years since Formula 1 had a French Grand Prix. Three new teams joined the grid, only to fizzle out and leave again, pound notes all spent. A plethora of great drivers – and some not-so great — have come and gone. And of course, most importantly, The Checkered Flag was created.
One thing that hasn’t changed though, is Lewis Hamilton. Sure, he’s a bit bling-ier now, he’s sporting more ink and he’s had some questionable hairstyles, but he’s still winning.
His latest victory, his first on French soil, was emphatic. He may have been pushed in qualifying by his team-mate Valtteri Bottas but throughout, Hamilton appeared to have pace in his pocket, able to call upon it whenever required.
As it was, that pocket of pace was hardly called upon during the race, courtesy of Sebastian Vettel’s removal of himself and Bottas from the front of the pack, Hamilton merely keeping the pursuing Max Verstappen at arms length.
Vettel’s launch from third on the grid was almost too good, planting himself on the gearbox of Hamilton with Bottas on his right and the dusty edge of the track to his left. Sensibly, he lifted before turn one so not to rear-end his main title rival, but the German locked his inside wheel and careened into Bottas.
The Finn was sent spinning and both he and Vettel, who required a quick nose job following further contact with Romain Grosjean later in the lap, found themselves at the back of the grid.
”I think my start was good, perhaps even too good,” said Vettel. “As I found myself very close to Lewis in front and, when I tried to brake, I had absolutely no grip and there wasn’t much space where I could go.
“Valtteri on my right was trying to get his position back and Max was also trying to come round on the outside.
“It’s a shame for Vatteri because he did nothing wrong and it’s a shame for us, because we could have obtained a better result.
“Fortunately, we could continue racing, we had a good car in the race, but the outcome was not want we wanted.”
Vettel bounced back as far as fifth, despite a 5-second penalty, two places ahead of Bottas. The points he recovered could very well prove crucial in this year’s title fight, and what did Vettel put his comeback drive down to? Wind.
Stop giggling at the back. The wind in question was a head wind, particularly ferocious along Paul Ricard’s famous, albeit chicane-interrupted, Mistral straight. It meant that DRS was particularly powerful and Vettel was able to catch and overtake those ahead easier than first feared.
It all means Hamilton now has a fourteen point lead in the drivers’ championship as the pendulum continues to swing between the reigning champ and Vettel in their strive for five titles.
Vettel and Bottas weren’t the only ones to suffer from a lap one skirmish as half the field channelled their inner Bernie Ecclestone and opted for a ‘joker lap’ on lap one, cutting corners and emerging back on track, not all unscathed.
So many cars got lost in the kaleidoscope of the circuit’s vast, blue striped run-off areas that it took the race stewards close to an hour to investigate any illegally gained positions. Home heroes Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly were eliminated on the spot, breaking the hearts of those French fans who made it to the circuit.
There was some hope for France however, as Carlos Sainz Jr. emerged from the lap one chaos in third for the Renault Sport Formula One Team. The Spaniard was eventually overhauled by the likes of Kimi Räikkönen and Daniel Ricciardo and fell to eighth by the finish courtesy of severe power loss.
But Renault’s points haul in France exacerbated the issues faced by McLaren F1 Team and worse still, the ailing Williams Martini Racing.
McLaren continue to slip down the competitive order with neither Fernando Alonso nor Stoffel Vandoorne making it out of Q1 in qualifying in France. In the race, neither McLaren man challenged for points, with Alonso echoing the frustrated outbursts of previous seasons. Can McLaren turn it around in the remaining races of the year? And will it be enough to keep Alonso in F1?
Still, at least McLaren were at the races. Williams’ dire season continued in France, with Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin likely fairing better in the traffic jams outside the circuit.
Pressures are mounting on key personnel within both teams as the likes of Eric Boullier (McLaren) and Paddy Lowe (Williams) find their positions on the line. Can either team find their way back to former glory? Right now, it’s looking difficult.
Talking of pressure on personnel, the French Grand Prix marked the first of three back-to-back races as the circus now heads to Austria and then Silverstone the weekend after.
It’s a logistical nightmare for the teams and a tiring month for the mechanics, engineers, hospitality staff and the many people that keep the teams and the sport functioning.
Still, from a fan’s perspective, the more racing, the better. But perhaps, no more gorilla trophies?