Time to begin the main European leg of the 2021 season, starting with the French Grand Prix, at Paul Ricard. It is in France that the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA) was first formed, all the way back on the 20th of June 1904, to represent motoring organisations, and the body has since become the chief overseer of various forms of motorsport. It could be argued that the French Grand Prix is Formula 1’s ‘home’ race, and the Paul Ricard circuit has hosted the French Grand Prix intermittently since the 1970s. France was without a Grand Prix from 2009 until 2018, leaving a frustrating gap in the history of the oldest Grand Prix – the first being held in 1906!
The track for the 2021 event is quite enjoyable. For starters it’s fast, and sweeping through the sequence of corners from 3 to 7 feels very satisfying. Lunging into turn 8 to try and overtake other cars feels like a daring and rewarding move. Turn 10 (Signes) is very fast, flat-out in fact, and it’s surprising as to how much speed can be carried into turn 11. Sometimes I struggled to get the car around turn 14 in a fashion that gave me a good approach to the tight turn 15, but when I nailed that sequence it felt very good! I was a bit lazy in some ways – I skipped FP1 and FP2 on the grounds that they were wet and the weather suggested qualifying and the race would be completely dry. It was a gamble, for my setup and practice runs ended up based on the notion of no rain. If I was wrong…
I upped the difficulty of the AI bit, then a little bit more, following some very competitive lap times from my small team. Consequently I still made it into Q3, being the only runner on the medium tyre, which gave me arguably the optimal strategy for the race, however in Q3 I wound up 8th on the grid. This wasn’t disastrous, and I felt confident I could get a few overtakes done and get a few more points on the board. I did slip down to 10th at the very start, got clipped by the Alpha Tauri of Tsunoda (but managed to stay on the road), and had to chase down Tsunoda’s teammate Gasly. Catch him I did, and on lap 2 I went around the outside of turn 8 and set around chasing the Ferrari of Leclerc. I just about managed to keep him in DRS range (for the most part), but he was part of a dreaded ‘DRS train’, with the McLaren of Ricciardo ahead of his teammate Norris, the second Ferrari of Sainz, and then Leclerc.
I trailed this train for a bit and nearly – nearly – got by Leclerc at one point, down the inside of turn 8, but backed out, for Leclerc was defending aggressively and I wanted to avoid damage or penalties. After several laps the soft tyres of the cars ahead were starting to show their age and one by one the foursome in front pitted, leaving me with clear air. At one point I ended up leading the race, though I expected to lose track position to at least some of the cars behind me when I finally stopped, and sure enough, I did. I was back behind the McLarens but now ahead of both Ferraris, so that was definitely a success! I was up to 7th and on soft tyres I rapidly closed in on the now medium-booted Norris. It was all too easy to pass him down into turn 8, though to give him his due he made it challenging for a brief time. Ricciardo was next and he too was dispatched in fairly short order, and on the soft tyre I was flying.
The next car down the road was Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes. I’ve already mentioned that he was having a bad season, and 3rd place for him would see him lose still more ground to championship leader and fellow Mercedes driver Bottas. The Red Bull of Verstappen was actually leading the race, but Bottas was 2nd and therefore on course to collect more points than Hamilton yet again. The second Red Bull of Perez was further down the order (presumably because of a pit stop, I don’t know), so I was happy in 4th, but I was closing on Hamilton.
I was a little wary of Hamilton, for he was defending quite well and I considered him to be quite a fierce combatant. After following him for a few laps and waiting for my opportunity I got by him, though I had a scruffy exit from the final corner and he wound up right on my tail. He attempted to get back by me through turns 3 and 4; I held my course, kept the door closed and we tangled. Hamilton came off far worse, retiring there and then, and the safety car was deployed.
You can judge for yourselves as to who was at fault!
I did not get penalised so the stewards must have felt the incident either lay with Hamilton or it was a racing incident. In any event, the safety car led to me pitting a few laps early for fresh medium tyres, and I ended up right behind Bottas, who had opted for hard tyres. My chief concern at this stage was whether or not the mediums would hold out (Bahrain remained fresh in the memory), but I felt hard would be too slow. I told myself I’d have to pit before the front-left reached critical wear, or I’d risk another loss of points.
In passing Bottas I now led the race. I ran through several permutations. If I pitted I’d end up either 3rd or 4th but with enough laps to get back to 2nd. Winning would be out of the question. If I held on, would the tyres last, and would they offer enough performance at the end to fend off Bottas? Whilst my tyres were fresh I built out a 10-second lead, which slowly began to shrink towards the end, but there was enough life left for me to take a third consecutive victory.
I hadn’t expected to win and I wonder if I would have under normal conditions. My immediate thought is to raise the challenge of the AI still further, though this was in many respects a more enjoyable win than the previous two. The result saw me move to within 72 points of Bottas, and climb the rankings a little bit more. Bottas himself extended his championship lead even more. With the number of points on offer shrinking all the time, Hamilton (and for that matter Verstappen) would need to find form, and fast.