The French Grand Prix has everything to be considered the watershed of the 2021 World Championship. The 53 laps covered today on Paul Ricard said a lot, verdicts that are not limited to the haul of the stage, but destined to change the scenario in view of the next ones too. races. The first fact that emerges, the most evident one, is that Red Bull is no longer the one that in Barcelona had suffered a (painful) defeat by a Mercedes that seemed to be back to the same as always, or the reference car.
On the eve of the Castellet weekend, the predictions were all for the World champion team, with the tendency to want to archive the successes achieved by Red Bull in Monaco and Baku as ‘track-related’, or performances favored by the particular conformation of the city circuits.
It is not so. The first words spoken today by Lewis Hamilton as soon as he got off the car were very indicative: “They (Red Bull) have incredible speed on the straight”.
Correct impression, because Verstappen and Perez in the top-speed ranking were second and third, respectively with 337 and 336.5 km / h. Hamilton and Bottas occupy the last two positions, with 321 and 320 km / h.
A matter of setup? Perhaps, they didn’t work flawlessly at Mercedes, but Toto Wolff claims that the new Honda power unit (which debuted this weekend) also secured a few more horsepower.
“We are not allowed to make progress – Horner immediately replied – I don’t know what it refers to, the specifications are those of the first power unit. We used a much smaller rear wing this weekend, which is why the straight line speed was very good. But anyway I think Honda is doing a great job ”.
Mercedes commits suicide at the pit stop
Despite this technical situation, and despite Verstappen starting from pole position, Mercedes still had the chance to win the French Grand Prix. The scenario has changed (and not a little) due to Verstappen’s ‘long’ at the first corner after the start, with the Dutchman who was caught off guard by the strong wind.
An episode that gave Hamilton the first position, a very welcome tribute to the world champion and immediately transformed into a solid leadership. Everything seemed to point in the direction of Hamilton and Mercedes, when on lap 16 Bottas was called to the pits for the pit stop.
At that moment the Finn had moved to 2 ”7 behind Verstappen, and in his garage they evaluated that margin sufficient to try the undercut. As usual, Red Bull ran for cover the next lap, calling Verstappen to the pits, and the same happened to Hamilton, who stopped on lap 18, with an advantage (verified on lap 17) of 3 ”2 over Verstappen.
The first data emerged was that Bottas’ undercut on Verstappen was unsuccessful (Bottas only gained 1 ”2 over the Dutchman) and shortly after came the verdict that determined the outcome of the French Grand Prix. When Hamilton came out of the pit lane after the tire change, he sensationally slipped behind Verstappen, losing the lead in the race.
In the Mercedes garage they looked at each other and remained stunned: what happened? The stop was favorable to Hamiton (2 ”2 his pit stop against Verstappen’s 2” 3), yet Red Bull number 33 took the lead.
The first data that emerged was that the Dutchman’s return lap was six tenths faster than that completed by Hamilton in the next lap, but it was above all Max’s lap that made the difference (1’39 “966). with an amazing third sector (42 ”242) which proved to be the fastest of the race.
But there is also another ‘yellow’, and Lewis lost six tenths in the pit lane (compared to Max), a margin usually negligible, but today enough to make Verstappen take the lead at the braking corner of the first corner, when Hamilton (just out of the pits) found himself next to Red Bull.
The first hypothesis is that Hamilton has lost an extra moment (because we are talking about moments …) to stop in the most correct way in the pit lane, together with an excessive slip of the tires during the restart. Mercedes has already made it known that it will review the videos in the coming days.
Considering the very narrow margins, however, it is evident that Mercedes’ strategic choice to stop Bottas on lap 16 (in fact what triggered the reaction that led Verstappen to lead the race) turned out to be a wrong decision that delivered the race. to Red Bull. In the past these errors were masked by a technical superiority that masked every flaw, but today the context is drastically different.
Paradoxically, Hamilton himself asked twice over the radio why he stopped, given that his tires were still in good condition, and Lewis was told that the choice was dictated by the need to cover himself from Verstappen’s possible undercut, which was then brought scored from the Dutch. What the world champion was unaware of at the time is that Mercedes itself actually triggered the process.
Red Bull played from the first force
Once he found himself behind Verstappen, Hamilton confirmed an excellent pace, managing to stay in the wake of Red Bull for a long time, confirming a superiority of performance in that phase of the race. But the price to pay was the deterioration of the tires, which presented the bill in the final laps. Also in this case, the Red Bull box played in advance, reading the situation as best as possible.
“Mercedes put us under pressure after the pit stop – confirmed Horner – and we thought their strategy included two stops. At that point our strategist proposed the possibility of anticipating a possible second pit on their part, and we decided to give it a try ”.
Verstappen’s second stop effectively forced Mercedes to complete the race without further stops, and that’s what Bottas and Hamilton felt. But the strategy chosen by Red Bull confirmed the confidence in the performance of their car, which is what Mercedes had successfully proposed in the Spanish Grand Prix.
On an unhappy day for the World Champion box there was also Bottas’ mistake, which came just at the moment in which Valtteri could have helped Hamilton, or when behind him (4 laps from the end) is Verstappen arrived.
Mercedes relied heavily on the Finn, and indeed his contribution could have been decisive, but Bottas was awkwardly wrecked with a braking error just as Red Bull materialized behind him.
Valtteri, for the first time since joining Mercedes, also spoke hard via radio with his engineer, complaining about the decision not to make a second stop. The reason was simple, that is, the team tried to put him between Lewis and Verstappen, which then failed even before starting. One last episode, that of Bottas’ nervousness, which ended a day that Mercedes will remember for different reasons than the splendid routine it was used to since 2014.