It is a testament to the skill and speed of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton – and their respective Formula 1 teams – that they are pushing each other to the limit.
Without the one, the other would be miles clear in the standings, dominating races and the points total, and set for a cruise to either a first or an eighth world title.
For the fifth time in seven grands prix they classified first and second, and on each of those five occasions they have traded position on-track – sometimes more than just once.
In France only three seconds separated by them after 53 laps of green flag competition – and it could have gone either way.
At this rate either will be a deserving World Champion and the main aspiration is that it isn’t decided until the final lap of a thrilling Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. That may appear fanciful and yet 2021 even delivered a scintillating French Grand Prix that depended on several crucial factors.
Bottas triggers the pit sequence
Mercedes was handed an unexpected opportunity to lead the race when the slightly lower downforce RB16B, and the gusty Mistral wind, caught out Verstappen into Turn 1 on the opening lap.
Verstappen was slightly fortunate that he could drive across the run-off, as opposed to encountering a wall, gravel or front-wing-wrecking grass, and slot back in having relinquished just one position.
It left the order of the race Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas, with Sergio Perez at that stage struggling to hang on to the leaders but comfortably clear of the midfield pack.
Pirelli’s pre-race guide had pointed towards a one-stop Medium/Hard strategy, pitting between laps 18 and 25, was the best approach, but Sunday morning rain – and the sheer speed of the race up front – pushed drivers towards the graining process.
Verstappen’s off at the very start dictated the running order but it was the third-placed driver whose actions triggered the pit stop phase.
Heading into the slightly downhill Turn 3 right-hander on lap 12 Bottas locked the front-right tyre, driving across the painted blue run-off, in the process causing a flat spot. On the pit wall Mercedes was increasingly worried and on lap 17 called him in.
“It was uncomfortably early to go to the end – and that was the case – and the concern on Valtteri’s car was he was getting an increasing vibration that was getting worse and worse every lap, and it was getting to the point of a reliability concern,” said Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin. “The focus was on making sure we didn’t have an issue on track. Valtteri’s stop triggered the pit stops at the front of the grid and that was what drove us to doing a very long stint with Lewis.”
The power of the undercut
Bottas’ stop fired the starting pistol for the round of stops but a lap later Mercedes did not respond – and instead it was Red Bull that pitted, bringing in Verstappen. Mercedes duly serviced Hamilton a lap later and given his prior three-second advantage to the Red Bull driver retaining track position was expected to be a formality. But as he came out of the pit lane Verstappen’s RB16B flew by. Mercedes and Red Bull were both stunned at how the situation unravelled. Hamilton’s radio messages cut a more perplexed than angered tone – as did the replies from race engineer Pete Bonnington.
“We thought when we had just over three seconds to Max we were safe from the undercut and that wasn’t the case,” explained Shovlin. “And we don’t fully understand why our models were telling us we would have been okay. If we brought Lewis in the lap after Valtteri, whether Max would have followed us in we don’t know, but that would have put us in a decent position.”
Team boss Wolff was unequivocal, declaring that “we lost the race at the stop”, adding “from there on we were on the back foot.” Wolff asserted that Mercedes “probably” had the quicker race car, but blew it.
To stop, or not to stop?
The earlier than expected first round of stops raised the notion of having to pit once more – though both front-runners had cause for concern.
Through the lap 20s Hamilton hounded Verstappen, in the process staying in the RB16B’s dirty air, risking damage to those delicate front tyres. Verstappen’s fresher power unit, and slightly lower downforce set-up, nullified the threat posed by a DRS-equipped Hamilton, who in turn had Bottas for company.
The respective teams had a decision to make. Verstappen expressed concern that “we cannot go to the end, that’s for sure,” but had vital track position at a circuit where passing had historically been problematic. On the opposite side Red Bull feared being out-foxed, as it had been in Spain and in Hungary two years ago, and then boxed into a corner.
But Mercedes did not have the luxury of a ‘free’ second stop, as it did in those races, thanks to the presence of Perez. The second Red Bull driver, who extended his first stint, was in both Hamilton’s and Bottas’ pit window.
“A two-stop would have been difficult [for Lewis] as Max only just got us, and we would have had to get through Sergio,” explained Shovlin. Wolff confirmed that Mercedes would have risked a second stop with one of its drivers had Perez not been in the window.
Red Bull reacted first – bringing in Verstappen after 33 of the 53 laps.
“To make that call when you’re in the lead and all the tyres are, looking okay, it was, it was quite a ballsy call,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner. “But it was the fastest way we felt at the end of the race.”
A Virtual Safety Car at any point could have wrecked Red Bull’s ambition but fortunately the race remained green through to the end.
Mercedes pair effectively sitting ducks
Bottas remained around four seconds behind Hamilton, the intended rolling roadblock between the title rivals, and would be critical in the outcome.
The longer Bottas could hold up a charging Verstappen the more the pendulum would swing towards Hamilton. But Bottas’ front tyres were in an increasingly dire situation; he defended into the chicane once Verstappen caught him on lap 44 but ran slightly deep, allowing the Red Bull driver to use the racing line and superior traction to cruise past on the exit.
“Why the f*** don’t you listen to me when I say it’s going to be a two-stopper,” exclaimed a justifiably irate Bottas.
It still wasn’t a slam dunk that Verstappen would catch Hamilton, as they both negotiated lapped cars, but after a couple of laps of similar lap times the Red Bull driver started taking chunks out of his rival – assisted by Hamilton running deep into Turn 12.
It took until the penultimate lap, but Verstappen made the move, and re-established the order the cars had been in on the run down to Turn 1 90 minutes beforehand. It was an exceptionally well-judged race by the championship leader.
“As soon as I was getting close I could see, of course Lewis on the tyres he was on, they were really worn and there was not much left on it,” said Verstappen. “As soon as I got in the DRS with the top speed and the wing level we chose, let’s say it was a fairly easy pass, but of course also having fresher tyres.”
Hamilton explained his tactics in defending, saying “he had the DRS open, so if he didn’t pass me there [into the chicane], he would have passed me the straight after. I just had no front end. It was pointless to defend any harder.”
Onto Red Bull’s home territory
Verstappen’s late pass, allied with fastest lap, means he heads to Red Bull’s pair of home events 12 points clear in the standings. It could be more, given Hamilton’s red-flag-assisted recovery at Imola and the Baku shenanigans.
It is the first time in history that Red Bull will head to the Red Bull Ring fronting both championships, and it arrives off the back of its first hybrid era hat-trick.
Verstappen and Hamilton both have two Red Bull Ring victories, a statistic that reflects better on the Dutchman given their respective machinery, with the venue not one of Hamilton’s strongest.
There are still 16 races – over two-thirds of the season left – but the momentum in the Formula 1 title race is with one team.
“It’s a power-hungry circuit, it’s got those long long straights so we could see something similar to this weekend,” said Hamilton.
“Obviously with the straight-line speed of the Red Bull… but we’ve got three days to try and see if we can make any adjustments and improvements.
“Maybe if we maximise absolutely everything maybe we can give them a run for their money.”
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari gave Hamilton and Mercedes a proper run for their money in 2018 – having also led the standings after seven rounds – but this certainly has the makings of their toughest challenge yet.