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2021 French GP Race Recap : Bull-ish Undercuts on Strategy Sunday!

The 2021 F1 Season returned to the heart of Europe to the southeastern part of France for the French Grand Prix. Circuit Paul Ricard was the first race of the first triple-header of the season. The circuit, constructed in 1969, offered multiple configurations with the current layout spanning 5.842 km. The track returned to the F1 calendar in 2018 but got cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic COVID-19. The circuit is distinctive for its Blue and Red run-off areas, the latter having a more abrasive surface to bring cars to a stop and prevent them from hitting the Tecpro barriers. The 1800m long Mistral Straight is another highlight of this track.

Baku had seen a topsy turvy contest with Perez and Red Bull coming out on top, but Verstappen failing to finish a race due to tyre delamination. Hamilton's record streak of consecutive points finishes came to an end after a mistake at the restart in Baku. Although the status quo got maintained in the Drivers' Championship, Red Bull extended their lead in the Constructors'. 

The two tyre delaminations in Baku ( Stroll and Verstappen ) brought about an investigation by Pirelli to ascertain the cause. Their findings revealed: "the failures were down to a circumferential break on the inner sidewall, which can be related to the running conditions of the tyre despite the prescribed starting parameters getting followed". Red Bull and Aston Martin shared statements, claiming that their cars were in adherence with the recommended tyre pressures, as provided by Pirelli.

More details shared here:

Post investigation, a new set of technical directives and protocols got agreed upon between Pirelli and the FIA, and the same got distributed to the teams. However, the teams desired to seek more clarity on the issue.

Leading up to the French GP weekend, Williams underwent an internal restructuring, with Jost Capito taking on the responsibilities of Team Principal from Simon Roberts and FX Demaison becoming the technical chief. 

Esteban Ocon signed a three year deal with Alpine Racing, which would keep him with the French outfit until the end of 2024. Mercedes had planned to give Grosjean a farewell test in their W10 on the French GP weekend. However, Grosjean was in the US with Indycar and citing travel and quarantine restrictions, Mercedes got forced to delay the test to later in the summer.

Honda's power units on Red Bull and Alpha Tauri sported the "e: Technology" badge, the name given to Honda's concept of high-efficiency electrification technology. Meanwhile, Mercedes swapped the chassis between its drivers, calling it "standard procedure".

McLaren was running a special tribute to the late Mansour Ojjeh (who passed away on 6th June ), a shareholder and a significant figure in the team. The team had new helmet designs, car livery, uniforms and garage decor in his honour.

So how did the contenders to the crown fair in Le Castellet? Time for a quick recap!

Practice :

Roy Nissany got the chance to participate in FP1 in place of Russell. Free Practice 1 got underway, and gusty conditions at turn eleven claimed the first victim in Vettel, who got spun around and hit the barriers. The abrasive tarmac in the Red run-off zone was instrumental in slowing his Aston Martin, however. Verstappen ran wide over the kerbs at the same turn and damaged his Red Bull's floor. Sainz got spun around at turns two and three, his soft tyres destroyed due to the abrasive run-off areas. Bottas suffered damage on his front wing after he went over the yellow kerbs, while Schumacher hit the barriers but managed to continue his run. The rookie Tsunoda suffered a slow spin at the last corner.

The Mercedes of Bottas and Hamilton topped the timesheets, followed by the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Perez. Ricciardo split the Alpines of Ocon and Alonso in 6th, while teammate Norris split the Alpha Tauris of Gasly and Tsunoda in 9th. 

Leclerc could manage only 11th in his Ferrari, followed by Giovinazzi and Raikkonen. The Aston Martins of Stroll and Vettel were 14th and 15th, and Sainz 16th in the other Ferrari. Latifi, Mazepin, Schumacher and Nissany brought up the rear of the field.

It was time for FP2, and the teams began their Qualifying and Race simulations with earnestness. Verstappen suffered front wing damage after going over the kerbs at turn two, while Mazepin complained about seat discomfort. Leclerc had to run wide to avoid hitting Ocon while Perez got held up by a Haas on his flying lap. Sainz had an offtrack moment at turn three while Mazepin suffered a spin but continued with his program.

Verstappen was the quickest at the end of FP2, eight-thousandths of a second clear of Bottas with Hamilton a further two-tenths adrift. Leclerc split the Alpines of Alonso and Ocon in 5th, while Gasly, Sainz, Raikkonen and Norris completed the top 10.

Giovinazzi was 11th in the other Alfa Romeo, followed by Tsunoda, a second slower than Verstappen's best time. Ricciardo was 14th, with the Aston Martins of Vettel and Stroll in 15th and 16th. Russell led Latifi, while Schumacher got the better of Mazepin at the back of the field.

The Mercedes seemed to have the edge over Red Bull, be it in Qualifying or Race-Trim. Bottas was the more settled of the two Mercedes drivers. The Alpines also displayed a competitive race pace, closely followed by McLaren and Alpha Tauri. The Ferrari powered cars seemed to struggle from balance issues while Aston Martin was nowhere close to other midfield contenders. 

McLaren detected a sensor issue on Ricciardo's gearbox and got forced to break the curfew restrictions by the FIA. No penalty incurred. 

The lights went green for the start of FP3, but no driver emerged from the pits in the first seven minutes. Mazepin was the first driver out on the circuit and suffered a spin at turn two. The abrasive run-off area destroyed his tyres, and the Russian had to tip-toe his Haas back to the pits. Soon enough, the track became a busy place with all drivers running their qualifying simulation programs with fresh sets of soft tyres. Verstappen was the quickest at the end of FP3, more than seven-tenths clear of Bottas and Sainz. Perez was 4th in the other Red Bull, followed by Hamilton and Norris. The Alpines of Alonso and Ocon were 7th and 8th, with Gasly and Ricciardo completing the top 10.

Leclerc was P11, followed by Giovinazzi and the Aston Martins of Stroll and Vettel. Raikkonen was 15th in the other Alfa Romeo, with Tsunoda splitting the Williams of Russell and Latifi in P17. Schumacher and Mazepin were at the back of the field for Haas.

Track limits got enforced at turn six on Saturday morning, and Sainz and Norris were two drivers who suffered from lap time deletions in FP3.

Qualifying :

Mercedes executed setup changes on Hamilton's car before the start of Qualifying in a bid to make the car more "driveable" for the Briton. 

Q1 got underway, and softs were the tyre of choice for everyone. The drivers had just begun their first runs when Tsunoda lost control of his Alpha Tauri at turn two and ended up hitting the barriers rearwards. The rookie couldn't get going again, and the session got red-flagged.

The session restarted with most of the drivers opting to do two runs in the first stint. Everyone was out on track with 11 minutes left on the clock. Stroll suffered from a lap time deletion for exceeding track limits at turn six.

Verstappen, Perez, Bottas, Hamilton, Gasly and Norris were the top six with Leclerc, Raikkonen, Mazepin, Stroll and Tsunoda in the drop zone at the end of the first runs. Leclerc went for another flying lap and improved to 11th, dropping Latifi down to 16th. Hamilton did likewise and improved to 2nd. The Red Bulls, Mercedes and Norris decided to stay put for the final minutes of Q1. The other drivers vying for a place in Q2 were setting personal best sector times when Schumacher got spun around and hit the barriers at turn six. The German's Haas got wrecked, and only 22 seconds remained of Q1. The stewards red-flagged the session again with the notification that Q1 wouldn't restart.

Latifi, Raikkonen, Mazepin, Stroll and Tsunoda got eliminated. Verstappen, Hamilton, Perez, Bottas, Norris and Gasly were the top six at the end of Q1, with Russell getting through to Q2 by a mere two-thousandths of a second. Schumacher was through to Q2 as well but couldn't take any further part due to his accident.

The Qualifying simulations from the practice sessions had revealed that the soft tyres had a small shelf life. Barring Russell, the other 13 drivers opted for the medium tyres for their first runs. All drivers were out on track with 11 minutes left on the clock. Norris suffered a lap time deletion for exceeding track limits at turn six. The Alpine drivers decided to go out of sync with the others, and at the end of the first runs, Perez, Verstappen, Sainz, Bottas, Gasly and Hamilton were the top 6. Norris went for another flying lap and managed to complete a legitimate round, ending 7th quickest. Hamilton chose to do the same and went to the top of the timesheets. The drivers in the drop zone were: Ocon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Russell and Schumacher. 

Perez, Ricciardo and Giovinazzi switched to the soft tyres for their final runs. Norris was on his out lap when McLaren asked him to return to the pits. It got revealed later that McLaren was facing fueling issues in Qualifying. Gasly was on a blistering lap but exceeded track limits at turn six, resulting in his lap deletion. Perez and Ricciardo's times remained unchallenged, and the duo slowed enough to ensure that their fastest laps of Q2 were on the medium tyres.

Bottas, Hamilton, Perez, Verstappen, Sainz, Gasly, Norris, Alonso, Leclerc and Ricciardo got through to Q3 with Ocon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Russell and Schumacher suffering elimination.

Q3 got underway, and except for Ricciardo and Alonso, the rest opted for the soft tyres. Gasly suffered from a lap time deletion again for exceeding track limits at turn six. Verstappen was on "provisional pole", almost four-tenths clear of Hamilton in 2nd. Perez was half a second adrift in 3rd, with Bottas setting the 4th quickest time after the first runs. 

The final minutes of Q3 saw all ten drivers get a fresh set of soft tyres, and the battle for pole position was hotting up. 

Hamilton went purple in sector one, but Verstappen went the quickest in sectors two and three to bag pole position! Hamilton qualified 2nd, two and a half tenths shy of Verstappen's time. Bottas improved to 3rd, with Perez taking 4th in the other Red Bull. Less than half a second separated the top four qualifiers. 

Row 3 got taken up by Sainz and Gasly, while Leclerc and Norris were 7th and 8th, respectively. Alonso and Ricciardo completed the top 10.

France had been Mercedes' fortress, but Red Bull broke the dominance on Saturday. Verstappen finally managed to land his first pole position of 2021, carrying on the form exhibited by him since Friday. Red Bull was glad to have Perez on the sharp end of the grid, and they hoped to outscore Mercedes and extend their lead in the Constructors' come Sunday. As for Hamilton, who was playing catch up, a setup change before Qualifying got him closer to his competitor. Bottas had a lacklustre weekend in Baku and needed a stellar performance to bring his title challenge back on track. 

Sainz converted his practice sessions form into Qualifying, becoming the best of the rest, and the Ferrari man had a chance to score a decent haul of points. His teammate Leclerc wasn't far behind in 7th. In a tightly contested midfield, Gasly remained the shining light for Alpha Tauri. The Frenchman qualified a commendable 6th at his home race. Another mistake by rookie Tsunoda invited scrutiny over his worthiness of an F1 drive. McLaren and Alpine were in the mix, too, with Ocon having the luxury of a free tyre choice come Sunday. 

It was a bitter-sweet day for Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo. While Vettel and Giovinazzi made it into Q2, Stroll and Raikkonen got caught out due to Schumacher's accident near the end of Q1, jeopardizing their chances of starting higher up for the race. Williams and Haas had a car each in Q2, but holding off those behind them on race day was a different challenge altogether.

Race :

C2, C3 and C4 were the tyre compounds available for the 53 laps race. The track had been wet in the morning during the F3 race but dried for the F1 race. Conditions were gusty, and the risk of rain was 10 %.

Tsunoda had a pitlane start after Alpha Tauri switched his car's floor to a different specification besides changing the suspension and gearbox post his crash on Sunday.

Russell, Schumacher, Latifi and Tsunoda chose the medium tyres, while the rest chose the hards ( outside the top 10 ). Pirelli predicted a one-stop strategy, but there was the option of a two-stopper as well ( should a team opt to go aggressive ). 

The five red lights went out, and it was time to go racing! Verstappen and Hamilton had great starts off the line, and Verstappen led the field going into turn one. However, the Dutchman lost the rear-end of his car due to the gusty winds and ended up going wide at turn two. Hamilton inherited the lead of the race, while Verstappen slotted back into 2nd. Bottas and Perez remained 3rd and 4th while Norris lost two positions and fell back to P9. Further down the field, Schumacher went backwards and was down in P18, while Raikkonen made up three places ending up in P14. 

Hamilton started building a lead at the front and was 1.5 seconds clear of Verstappen. Meanwhile, Norris went wide at turn one, which allowed teammate Ricciardo to snatch P9. Vettel got past Ocon for P11, while Stroll overtook Latifi for P15 ( lap 2 ). 

Verstappen was the fastest man on track while Schumacher lost two positions to Russell and Mazepin at the back of the field. Tsunoda, who had started from the pit lane, was up to P16 with an overtake on Latifi ( lap 4 ). Bottas began to hone in on Verstappen as he went about setting blistering laps. Ricciardo began to pressure Alonso for P8, while Stroll got past Raikkonen for P14 ( lap 9 ).

Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas, Perez, Sainz, Gasly, Leclerc, Alonso, Ricciardo, Norris were the top 10 at the end of lap 10. 

The Mercedes drivers began to report graining on their medium tyres, and some drivers reported a loss of tyre performance. Alonso was one such driver and ended up losing three places to Ricciardo, Norris and Vettel in the space of three laps. Meanwhile, Russell got past teammate Latifi for P17. A lock-up by Bottas at turn three allowed Verstappen to build a gap to the Finn. Stroll got past Giovinazzi for P13 and Ricciardo overtook Leclerc for P7 on lap 14.

Leclerc was the first from the top 10 to pit for hard tyres on lap 15, emerging in P19. Soon after, he got past Mazepin for P18. Tsunoda did likewise, a lap later, and rejoined P20 and last. A slew of pit stops followed, with every driver switching to the hard tyres. The undercut worked for Leclerc and Ricciardo, who managed to jump Sainz and Gasly after their round of pit stops. 

Mercedes decided to pit Bottas on lap 18, but the Finn failed to jump Verstappen when he completed his stop a lap later. The gap, however, had reduced to a second. Alonso and Latifi also pitted for the hard tyres on lap 19, rejoining in P15 and P18, respectively. Mercedes asked Hamilton to "use all the grip left" as he pitted on lap 20. The team believed they had built a gap big enough to emerge ahead of Verstappen. Hamilton's stop for hard tyres was a tenth quicker than Verstappen's, but as he exited the pits, the Briton got overtaken by the Dutchman going into turn one. Verstappen had taken the effective lead of the race! Further up the field, his teammate Perez got asked to extend his stint on the medium tyres. 

Bottas was the fastest man on track as both Mercedes cars stayed within the DRS range of Verstappen, who managed to fend off the challenge. Raikkonen, who had started the race on hards, lost performance on his tyres and relinquished P10 and P11 to Leclerc and Ricciardo. He then dropped back to P14, with Sainz and Gasly getting the better of him too. Leclerc continued his charge up the field with a move on Giovinazzi for P9 on lap 24. 

Red Bull finally pitted Perez for hard tyres on lap 25, the Mexican rejoining in P4. Norris did likewise and rejoined in P14. The drivers who had pitted caught up to those who had started their race on the hard tyres. A slew of overtakes followed over the next three laps. Giovinazzi got relegated to P12 by Ricciado, Sainz and Gasly; Norris and Alonso got past Raikkonen for P13 and P14, while Ocon got bumped down to P12 by Leclerc, Ricciardo, Gasly and Norris. 

The midfield battle was hotting up, and Ricciardo got the better of Leclerc for P7 on lap 29, while Norris pressured Gasly for P10, the duo making contact at turn 11. Ocon and Giovinazzi finally pitted for the medium tyres on lap 29, rejoining in 17th and 18th. Meanwhile, in the battle for P10, Norris managed to get past Gasly, and the duo relegated Leclerc to P11. The Monegasque was the first to pit for hard tyres, and his tyres had fallen off the cliff. Norris then got past ex-teammate Sainz for P8, while Leclerc lost P11 to Alonso on lap 32.

The front runners complained about tyre graining, and Verstappen quipped that he couldn't maintain the current pace if he were to finish the race with a one-stop strategy. Bottas too hinted at changing to a two-stopper. The gap between the top three began to open up, and Red Bull decided to switch Verstappen to the medium tyres on lap 33. The Dutchman pitted for a set of mediums and emerged P4 behind teammate Perez. He had an 18 seconds deficit to cover to Hamilton.  Meanwhile, Raikkonen lost two positions to Tsunoda and Russell before making his only pit stop on lap 35 for medium tyres. 

McLaren asked Ricciardo and Norris to swap places to allow the latter to attack those ahead with fresher tyres. The move paid dividends when Norris got past Stroll ( who was yet to pit ) for P6 on lap 35. Stroll pitted for soft tyres on lap 35, rejoining in 14th. Meanwhile, Perez let Verstappen by on lap 36, and the duo began to hunt down the Mercedes drivers together. Verstappen was the fastest man on track, lapping 2 seconds quicker than Hamilton at the front. The gap was down to 12 seconds with 17 laps remaining.

Gasly and Alonso got past Sainz, relegating him to P10. Vettel, the only driver yet to stop, pitted for mediums on lap 39 and rejoined in 11th. Leclerc made another stop in the race, switching to the mediums and rejoining in P16. Raikkonen got past Latifi for P17 while Stroll relegated Tsunoda to P12. Meanwhile, Verstappen continued his charge to the front and reduced the deficit to Hamilton to 6.5 seconds.

Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, Perez, Norris, Ricciardo, Gasly, Alonso, Sainz and Vettel were the top 10 at the end of lap 43.

Verstappen had honed in on Bottas and was within the DRS range. The Dutchman pressured Bottas, who out-braked himself going into turn one. The mistake allowed Verstappen to close up and get past him for P2 on lap 45! It wasn't the defence that Mercedes were hoping for from Bottas, but he was out of tyre life. Only 4.5 seconds separated Verstappen from Hamilton, and the final few laps promised to be a tense affair. Meanwhile, Bottas didn't mince his words on team radio as he expressed his displeasure with the team for not heeding his advice of switching to a two-stop strategy. 

Hamilton tried his best to maintain a 4 seconds lead over Verstappen, but the battle for P3 hotted up as Perez closed in on Bottas. It was job done for Perez on lap 49, and Red Bull was looking at a double podium finish. Verstappen kept eating away into Hamilton's lead, bringing it down to 2 seconds by lap 50, and on lap 51, the Dutchman got within the DRS range. 

Verstappen made a comfortable pass on Hamilton ( with DRS ) to take the lead on the penultimate lap! The reigning World Champion could offer little resistance.

Verstappen took the Chequered Flag and victory at the French GP! Hamilton came home in 2nd, with Perez completing a double podium for Red Bull in 3rd. 4th was the best that Bottas could achieve, followed by the McLarens of Norris and Ricciardo. Gasly finished a commendable 7th, with Alonso, Vettel and Stroll completing the top 10.

Sainz finished in P11 for Ferrari, with Russell and Tsunoda 12th and 13th, respectively. Ocon was 14th in the other Alpine, and Leclerc split the Alfa Romeos of Giovinazzi and Raikkonen in 16th. Latifi, Schumacher and Mazepin completed the rear of the field.

Interestingly, all 20 drivers finished the race, and there was no VSC or Safety Car incident the entire race. 

Verstappen got the "Driver of the Day" and scored his first hattrick of 2021 - Pole, Fastest Lap and Race Victory. The win helped him extend his lead to 12 points in the Drivers' Championship. As for Red Bull, they outscored Mercedes and led the Constructors' Championship by 37 points. 

Red Bull had come up second best in Spain and was on the receiving end when Mercedes had adopted the same strategy then. It was payback time in France. Meanwhile, Perez, in the other Red Bull, had driven a stellar race to 3rd. Red Bull's search for a driver who would deliver the goods like Verstappen was finally over. 

Mercedes and Hamilton were bewildered by the effectiveness of the undercut. The team apologized to Hamilton for the strategy gaffe. While Hamilton managed to exact the maximum out of his car, Bottas was left disgruntled with the one-stop strategy. The Finn returned to a points finish, but his title challenge seemed all but over now. 

McLaren emerged victorious in the "best of the rest" battle and cemented P3 in the Constructors with P5 and P6. Norris led the charge again while Ricciardo seemed more settled with life in the new team. The Australian made some stunning passes along the way. 

Ferrari, McLaren's immediate competitor, failed to score and now trailed them by 16 points. It was back to the drawing board for the Italian marquee. Sainz and Leclerc had done well to qualify in the top 10 but went backwards in the race. Ferrari has limited time to turn things around with back-to-back race weekends in Austria. Alpha Tauri managed to hold onto 5th in the Constructors', thanks to a P7 finish by Gasly. The team need Tsunoda to step up as his drive is coming under intense scrutiny. The rookie cannot afford many mistakes in the unforgiving world of F1. 

Vettel and Stroll did a stellar job with the alternate strategy, making the one-stopper work for Aston Martin and getting them 3 points from the weekend. Aston Martin seems capable of usurping 5th from Alpa Tauri if its drivers continue to perform in the same vein. Alonso ensured that Alpine didn't go pointless from their home race. Ocon had a poor showing in P14. Alpine cannot afford mediocre days such as these if they want to stay in touch with the rest of the midfield.

Russell had a great race, finishing in P12, but a points-finish still eludes Williams and him. His teammate Latifi came up second best again. Nevertheless, the results served as a good platform for the team to build on. Alfa Romeo had a lacklustre day at the office with Giovinazzi and Raikkonen in P15 and P17, respectively. The team ended nowhere with the strategies it had adopted. Ferrari powered cars struggled with outright pace in France, and like Alfa Romeo, Haas would be hoping to have a better showing in Austria.

Verstappen and Red Bull had broken Hamilton and Mercedes dominance in France. Mercedes had begun to exhibit chinks in the armour, and tactical errors were costing them in the title fight, something unheard of in the turbo era. An undercut combined with an aggressive strategy proved pivotal in the quest for victory. 

The battle now resumes in the hills of Styria, with back-to-back races at the Red Bull Ring, Red Bull's home race. There is little time for Mercedes and Co to set things right, and Red Bull has enjoyed a fair share of success in Austria. Who will emerge the victor? Time will reveal all!

Bring on the Styrian GP!