Viva la France! The Paul Ricard circuit is a blisteringly quick track that returned to Formula 1 in 2018 after a lengthy hiatus, having last hosted an F1 Grand Prix in 1990 (it hosted other events including F1 testing, in the interim). Speed is the key ingredient here, but the circuit is generous with run-off areas, in a manner more akin to modern circuits (think Abu Dhabi). Consequently errors are not as costly here, but that doesn’t mean you want to make them!
The trickiest segment is sector three, which features turns 10-15. I say tricky, however no element is especially difficult. The most likely problems are to run wide through the sweeping turn 11 (which I did on at least one occasion), and getting out of shape on the slippery kerb coming out of turn 12. Sometimes I’d misjudge the final two corners but never enough to compromise my lap. As is now the norm I ran a high-fuel, hard tyre stint in practice, along with a few goes with lighter fuel, and FP2 brought a little bit of rain, so I practiced on inters too. Rain was predicted for the race, however I opted for a dry setup (optimism and all that), and then hit the track for qualifying. Q1 was straightforward (1.5 seconds ahead of the pack!), Q2 saw me don medium boots and as a result grant myself a strategic advantage for the race, and by the end of Q3 I was on pole.
My race starts had been better over the last few races, but at Paul Ricard I got away badly. By the conclusion of the first few corners I had fallen to sixth, and was tangling with the McLaren of Lando Norris, trying to regain fifth place. I found myself going to wheel-to-wheel with him and managed to edge ahead, then shot by Hamilton into turn 8, but a messy exit allowed him to to get a good slipstream and retake me, whilst I had to hang it around the outside of turns 10 and 11 to stay ahead of Norris. Whilst I had the long-term edge of being on medium tyres (everyone else was on softs), I did not have the performance in those early stages, but I gradually began to reel Hamilton in and with DRS, blew past him after a few laps. Next was the Red Bull pair, and first up was Sergio Perez. DRS allowed me to dive down the inside at turn 8 and such was the advantage of the drag reduction system that I was able to have a crack at Verstappen at the same time – and then I witnessed a rare AI error. Perez had crashed (no, I had nothing to do with it), and as a result the safety car came out.
On the replay it appeared Perez had taken too much kerb on the exit of turn 8, gotten on the power too early and pitched himself into a fast spin that broke his front-right suspension. Bottas and Verstappen pitted – myself and surprisingly Hamilton did not.
I wouldn’t have said the race hinged on the safety car but it allowed me to slightly prolong my first stint, and then I switched to another set of mediums and cruised. At this point I have to raise to the AI settings, because when the race was run I had won far too easily. Yes, I want to win but I need something of a challenge and an understanding that the car is not yet in a place to win titles, yet without tweaking the AI I suspected this would happen. I want to win the title, but it has to feel right and earned. For the next race things would be harder.