By Neil Leverett
- Max Verstappen wins French Grand Prix at Circuit Paul Ricard, Le Castellet
- Dutchman claims third win of campaign, overtaking Lewis Hamilton on penultimate lap after tactical duel
- Red Bull win third successive race for first time in turbo-hybrid era, their first in France
LE CASTELLET – After Max Verstappen led Red Bull to their first win at Le Castellet this past weekend, what can we take away from the French Grand Prix?
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Max plays it again
It may not have been his most convincing win, but in many respects, Max Verstappen‘s victory at the French Grand Prix, was a greater indication of the growing menace he now is to Lewis Hamilton and his World Drivers’ Championship.
As the Dutchman overhauled his Mercedes rival on the penultimate lap at Circuit Paul Ricard this past Sunday, Verstappen’s long game during a race – an increasingly prominent factor this season – again paid off handsomely, playing his drive at Le Castellet to perfection.
It is easy to forget that pole-sitter Verstappen had endured a difficult start however, after being overtaken by the Briton at Turn 1 on the opening lap following an error – ironically locking up as Hamilton had done in Baku.
Bbut as teams continued to juggle with the idea of two or three stops, the championship leader had regained his position at the head of the pack by the first round of pitting.
On another afternoon of tactical cat-and-mouse, all four of Verstappen, Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas were vying for the top spot on the podium in France.
On this occasion however, as both Red Bull and Mercedes tried to second guess one another, it was Verstappen who opted to pit on Lap 32, whilst Hamilton remained on his older tyres.
As Verstappen ate away at the 18-second deficit, Perez let his teammate past to go in pursuit, after Hamilton had also boxed.
With a gap of just five second to close in the race’s climax, the leader in the standings reeled his foe in with a lap to go, as the Briton – almost resigned to his runners-up spot – could do little to fend the Dutchman off.
Sunday was another ploy of cunning precision by the wily Verstappen, and his final-lap record and bonus point, further underlined the fact.
Perez the team player
Throughout Mercedes’ reign of dominance over the past four years, team ethic has been as important a factor in not only Hamilton’s four-successive F1 titles, but in Mercedes monopoly over the opposing teams in the paddock.
But as Bottas and more importantly his car appear to be waning in their powers, it is perhaps now Red Bull who are looking to take over the teamwork mantle, with Sergio Perez this time the vital component.
Denied his own back-to-back double in France, the Mexican did record successive podiums however, and having finished in the top five in six of seven outings this term, is proving a huge fillip for Red Bull.
As we saw with Bottas during his better days, the Finn was the ultimate in professionalism and had often teamed with Hamilton to fend off Red Bull or in the recent past, Ferrari.
We saw that in Perez this weekend similarly, as he allowed Verstappen to pass to the betterment of his team, however he also knows the car and his own abilities as a driver, are not being undermined.
As the Silver Arrows find themselves in their biggest fight since 2013 – when last they lost out to Red Bull – Verstappen and Perez genuinely seem to like one another, harmonious and on a united front.
So are we seeing the seeds sown on the next bromance in F1 that can take Red Bull to the top once more? More importantly, is there anything Mercedes can do to derail it?
Red Bull lay down gauntlet
Arriving in France with a 26-point advantage in the Constructors’ Championship, Red Bull knew how crucial the next three races in the season could be.
Boy, have they laid down a marker.
Without a win in France during six attempts – albeit with no French GP during their early 2010’s period of dominance – Red Bull broke their gallic duck at Le Castellet, and in doing so recorded a third-successive F1 win for the first time in the turbo-hybrid era.
Not only that, but with two more races to follow over consecutive weekends, the Milton Keynes outfit’s haul of 40 points in France has, for now at least, seen Red Bull move out to a sizeable advantage over Mercedes.
After Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas could only muster second and fourth, the Silver Arrows now sit a full 37 points off in the standings.
Though far from a crisis for boss Toto Wolff, with back-to-back races to come for Red Bull their on home terrain of the Styrian mountains, that gap could become significantly bigger.
If not by the end of next weekend, then almost certainly by the time the paddock arrives at Silverstone next month.
Steady progress for McLaren
Paul Ricard was another enjoyable jaunt for McLaren this weekend, particularly for one Daniel Ricciardo, who appears to be finally settling into his new surroundings.
Whilst Lando Norris has enjoyed an excellent campaign to date – again registering his third P5 of the campaign – his Australian teammate’s transition from Renault has been a difficult one. But France again showed signs of huge optimism for the British team.
Like Norris, Ricciardo surged through the field on Sunday and claimed four places on his qualification placing of Saturday, coming home sixth.
Perhaps it was the street circuits of Monte Carlos and Baku that did not suit the MCL35M, but whatever the case, the Perth driver will now be looking to consistency over the next two weekends at the Red Bull Ring in Austria.
A vintage season is delivering
The French GP was the latest instalment in what is fast becoming a classic season. It really is hard to recall the last time the top four were separated by a mere five seconds with only 10 laps to go, but that is what played out in the south of France.
But these thrill rides are no one-offs. Indeed, every race so far in 2021 have been determined in the final laps, and it is making for gripping viewing.
Aside from the growing needle at the head of the field, behind them, the battle between Ferrari and McLaren is really heating up, whilst seeing the progress of AlphaTauri under rookie Yuki Tsunoda and the ever-improving Pierre Gasly, is fascinating.
Just like the bubbles that were again wildly sprayed around on the podium at Paul Ricard, this particular year is proving quite the vintage.
And we’ve only had seven races. Roll on Spielberg this weekend.
The 2021 Styrian Grand Prix takes place this weekend, at the Red Bull Ring, Spielberg, Austria.
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