ANALYSIS: 2019 Formula 1 French Grand Prix – Assessing the field

by William Brierty

Whilst the Canadian Grand Prix injected a degree of drama and controversy into the season, the French Grand Prix did a fine job of returning Formula 1 to a more sedate tempo. A spectacularly dull race reverted to all the main themes of 2019: the insurmountable dominance of one team, the remarkable abilities of the reigning champion and the uphill challenge faced by any team planning to challenge them in the near future.

With the championship fast becoming a matter of inevitability and with the racing at the front leaving much to be desired, the entertainment is fast becoming dependent on the midfield order. Happily, with a team lodging an unexpected revival and a young driver fast marking himself as a star of the future, the lower reaches of the field continued to provide much intrigue…

Top of the class…

Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.286s
Race margin to team-mate: -18.056s

At his best, Lewis Hamilton is truly remarkable to behold. Going into the weekend the paddock was awash with talk of a potential Ferrari renaissance and speculation over how Valtteri Bottas tends to perform well on unabrasive circuits like Paul Ricard. Nico Rosberg even continued to maintain that Bottas was the faster Mercedes driver on one lap in 2019. Unsurprisingly, Hamilton didn’t feel the need to oblige any of these remarks. Having matched Bottas blow for blow throughout practice and the opening salvos of qualifying, Hamilton’s usual Q3 afterburner ultimately put him three tenths clear of the Finn. He had been half a second up on his final attempt, but a slide in the penultimate corner reduced the delta and saved Bottas’ blushes.

As has been his style in the hybrid era, Hamilton ascended to an entirely new level in the race. Able to produce purple sectors at will, Hamilton relentlessly increased the gap to his team-mate and perfectly modulated his use of the tyre. Whilst Bottas ran into tyre trouble in the closing laps (bringing Leclerc into play), Hamilton managed to lap within hundredths of the fastest lap on 29 lap old hard compound tyres. Increasingly, Hamilton’s masterful pace management across a stint is becoming one of his greatest assets. Certainly, track position helps, but whilst Bottas ended the race eighteen seconds in arrears, Hamilton finished the race in Baku on Valtteri’s gearbox.

Lando Norris – McLaren F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.104s
Race margin to team-mate: +12.312s
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

Whilst Carlos Sainz Jnr took the lion’s share of the points from McLaren’s superb weekend in France, rookie Lando Norris definitely took the lion’s share of the plaudits. Having struggled with the technical long-radius sweepers at the Chinese Grand Prix, the comparably front-limited Paul Ricard layout didn’t appear to suit McLaren on paper. And yet, from the outset in FP1, McLaren and particularly Norris showed superb speed. Lando was inside the top seven in all three practice sessions and finished FP2 as high as fifth.

As has been a feature of his fledgeling F1 career, Norris would go on to excel in qualifying. Fifth on the grid, just nine thousandths adrift of the Red Bull of Max Verstappen was a truly outstanding effort. It also arguably marked a new high-water mark in McLaren’s long and painful fightback to competitiveness. Norris is also clearly vindicating the decision to promote the youngest driver in the team’s history. Albeit pipped by his team-mate off the line, Norris quickly showed that his race pace was as good or better than Sainz’s. A suspected hydraulic issue left Norris grappling with increasingly heavy steering and a seizing differential in the closing laps. Whilst the 19-year-old clung on ably, he was ultimately divebombed by Ricciardo on the final lap, edged off track and forced to settle for tenth. A bittersweet result but a fine choice for Driver of the Day.

Charles Leclerc – Scuderia Ferrari

Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.834s
Race margin to team-mate: -43.811s

Leclerc’s star has not shined quite as brightly since his Bahrain heroics. Some mistakes in qualifying, a string of strategic blunders from the team and a tendency to gravitate behind team-mate Vettel in races has stunted the growth of F1’s latest blossoming talent. A solid if unspectacular weekend in Canada at least saw Leclerc return to the rostrum, however he had been thoroughly lacking his team-mate’s superb pace. In France, however, Leclerc spent the entire weekend as the faster Ferrari driver and successfully hooked up a clean lap in Q3. Albeit having spent much of the race in the no-mans-land between Bottas and Verstappen, Leclerc’s cognizance of the tyre consumption (even going so far as to resist his engineer’s call for an increase in pace) put him on the Mercedes’ gearbox on the final lap. There was little prospect of an overtake, but it was good to see Leclerc on the attack again.

Kimi Raikkonen – Alfa Romeo Racing

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.125s
Race margin to team-mate: -46.930s

Despite a move to a vastly smaller team and a vastly less competitive car, Raikkonen racked-up points and Q3 appearances in the opening races to an extent that it was almost business as usual. However, a disastrous trio of races in Barcelona, Monaco and Montreal completely derailed Raikkonen’s typical rock-solid consistency. A weekend in Canada, where the Finn was outqualified by his young team-mate and proceeded to be among the slowest cars on the track during the race was particularly worrisome. Qualifying behind Giovinazzi again in Paul Ricard was not ideal. However, a fine race more than made amends. Experience and guile allowed Raikkonen to perfectly execute the contra-strategy all the while putting up a stout defence against the faster Renault of Hulkenberg. Close combat dexterity on the final lap allowed the Finn to climb to eighth, which became seventh after Ricciardo’s penalty.

Homework to do…

Pierre Gasly – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.775s
Race margin to team-mate: +78.099s
Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

As a home hero driving for a championship-winning team, Gasly’s face adorned much of the promotional material going into the French Grand Prix weekend. It would be nice to say that the Frenchman used all the home support as a springboard to a much-needed breakthrough in performance. However, unfortunately, Gasly arguably endured his worst weekend of an increasingly troublesome season. Like Canada, Red Bull was not competitive at all, but unlike Canada, Gasly could not salvage the dignity of at least scoring points on the road (eventually inheriting a single point following Ricciardo’s demotion).

More than seven tenths slower than Verstappen in Q3 and forced the start the race on the fragile soft tyre, Gasly’s build-up to race day scarcely could have been worse. Hampered by the tyres in the opening laps, the Frenchman was forced to suffer the ignominy of being passed by his predecessor on-track, with Ricciardo flying past the freshly pitted Red Bull on the Mistral straight as Gasly struggled to get his hard tyres up to temperature. Increasingly the memory of Gasly’s brief revival at the start of the European season is fading and the question of his future with the team is becoming unavoidable. However, with Kvyat’s history with the top squad and Albon’s unproven credentials, perhaps the lack of an obvious successor will be Gasly’s saving grace.

Romain Grosjean – Rich Energy Haas F1 Team

Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.460s (Q1)
Race margin to team-mate: N/A

Gasly was not the only French driver who suffered a French Grand Prix to forget. With Haas only able to unlock their pace at an increasingly narrow variety of tracks, the smooth asphalt and medium speed sweepers of Paul Ricard should have put the Anglo-American outfit on a stronger footing than Canada. It didn’t. With Haas struggling from the outset the last thing Grosjean needed to do was to lock-up and destroy a set of tyres in FP2. Albeit eliminated in Q1, the Frenchman could at least take some solace from the fact that team-mate Kevin Magnussen qualified just two places higher in fifteenth. A more driveable balance in the race didn’t result in any upturn in pace, and Grosjean would have been doubtlessly relieved to retire the car from sixteenth in the closing laps.

The rest…

Renault couldn’t quite translate their Canadian pace into results on home turf, but an engine upgrade for Daniel Ricciardo at least made Renault the closest midfield challengers to the high-flying McLarens. Nico Hulkenberg recovered admirably in the race after a brake-by-wire issue hampered the German’s final effort in Q2, whilst a gung-ho attempt to pass Norris on the final lap scored Ricciardo a penalty and cost him a fine points haul. Daniil Kvyat’s race was largely condemned from the outset due to a crippling power unit penalty, however, this didn’t prevent the Russian from logging a tenacious drive to fourteenth. A promising race for Alexander Albon unravelled on the opening lap, as he was forced to take to the run-off at Turn 1 – falling from eleventh to sixteenth.

Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd.

A superb lap from Sergio Perez in Q1 – some seven tenths quicker than Lance Stroll – was the highlight of another trying weekend for Racing Point. Neither drivers were able to launch a concerted bid for points, with Stroll unable to repeat his hard tyre party piece. A more solid weekend for Robert Kubica was marked by a more respectable four tenth gap to his team-mate in qualifying. That said, the Pole would suffer the gratuitous discredit of being eclipsed by reserve driver Nicholas Latifi in FP1. Despite limited running in practice, George Russell continued his invisibly diligent start to his F1 career, with a bold attempt at passing Kubica around the outside of Signes an impressive marker of the Brit’s sizeable pace advantage.

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