Feature: Talking points from the French Grand Prix

F1's Max Verstappen leads the McLarens at the French GP

Formula 1’s 2019 French Grand Prix won’t go down in the history books as a thriller. Nonetheless, Motorsport Week presents its talking points from Circuit Paul Ricard.

Bad decisions

The kind term would be to call the French Grand Prix ‘intriguing’. The unkind would be to use several synonyms along the lines of ‘lacklustre’, ‘yawn-inducing’, or even just ‘mediocre’. It was not a grand prix for the ages. Lewis Hamilton led every lap and never looked remotely like getting beaten. As he often has done, Hamilton spoke eloquently and insightfully about the state – and future – of the sport. “I think it’s really important for people to realise it’s not the driver’s fault,” said Hamilton. “This is a constant cycle of Formula One, for years and years and years even before I got here, it’s because of the way Bernie [Ecclestone] had it set up and the decisions that were made then are still the same. Until that management structure changes it will continue to be the same, in my opinion, and that’s not my job to do that, it’s my job to do the best I can as a driver.”

Hamilton added: “When you [journalists] write the story and you say ‘it’s boring’ - if you do, I totally understand it, I remember growing up watching it. Don’t point the fingers at the drivers because we don’t write the rules, we don’t have anything to do with the money shift and all that kind of stuff.  We should put the pressure on people that are at the head. I think they are trying to but for many, many years they’ve made bad decisions. Do I have confidence it’s going to shift massively? I have faith it’s going to get better, to the point that I went to Paris last week to get involved. I was in that meeting watching all the bosses of F1 and the FIA and all the Formula 1 teams and trying to get involved.”

Penalty aplenty

Ricciardo got two penalties on the last lap

Most of the build-up, and Friday’s focus, was on the hangover from the Canadian Grand Prix, with Ferrari attempting to overturn Sebastian Vettel’s penalty. Finally, on Friday evening, the case was closed, and it provoked much laughter than one of the few new pieces of evidence supplied was the post-race analysis conducted by Karun Chandhok on Sky Sports F1. It is almost as if Ferrari is trying to fuel its critics. With that one done, one of the few pieces of genuinely exciting racing during the French Grand Prix was sanctioned post-race as the four-car scrap for seventh ended up with Daniel Ricciardo being penalised for re-joining unsafely (oh we’ve heard that one before) and then by gaining an advantage. Ultimately, by the letter of the law – as in Canada – it was the correct call. But it raised questions about the track design at Paul Ricard, effectively a test circuit now used for top-level racing. The ability to run wide means drivers are tempted into doing so while the near-essay of pre-event notes explaining how drivers should re-join at certain parts of the track only highlighted the problem. Formula 1 can’t keep racing at circuits where the layout is effectively painted on, wanting wheel-to-wheel action, and then penalising the result. Something has to change. 

Ghastly Gasly

Pierre Gasly has had a horrible time of it in 2019 as he tries to gel his driving style with Red Bull’s RB15 while on the other side of the garage Max Verstappen is still working wonders. Gasly was only ninth on the grid and running Soft tyres did not aid his cause, but on Hards he still struggled. Being at the foot of the top six in previous races was bad enough, but on home soil he fell behind both McLaren and Renault drivers, along with Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen. He was despondent post-race. “At the moment I just slide all four wheels quite a lot,” Gasly explained. “So FP3 was good, from qualifying we struggled massively and was the same in the race. Quite big drop of grip. Just sliding. I don’t have any answer at the moment. It’s clearly something we need to analyse to see why we had low grip. I never really felt that car like this. It was clearly something we did after FP3.” It’s only been eight races but already there are serious questions as to whether Gasly can turn this around. There have been murmurs of discontent regarding the relationship between Gasly and his race engineer, and that’s an alliance that is ultimately crucial in Formula 1. If it isn’t working, something needs changing. If not his 2020 hopes are slim to none. 

Paddock vibes

Renault's new motorhome made its debut

Since Liberty Media acquired Formula 1 the paddock has become an immeasurably more relaxed environment. In France there was a new motorhome from Renault – putting the bouncy castle out to pasture after a decade of use in various guises – which pleased Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian elated at the size of his shower in the new unit. A welcome party was held on Friday evening, with the team even having personally branded champagne bottles. Nestled ideally between Haas and Red Bull’s reduced-sized motorhome (it was using the MotoGP version of the updated Energy Station due to logistics) was a bar and a boulangerie. The former had drinks (this should not need explaining obviously) and the latter had an array of freshly-baked produce straight from the oven. There were croissants, chocolate-laced products, pastries and assorted jams, all neatly presented on trays and in baskets. Rumour has it cholesterol levels went up astronomically in the paddock last weekend. Another uplifting sight was that of 10,000 school-aged children being present on Thursday, with groups taking a look around the paddock and having open-top bus tours of the circuit. There were also educational conferences about potential careers in motorsport as well as seminars on road safety. Better than any school trip this writer ever went on. It was also a ‘home race’ of sorts for several drivers, with Paul Ricard not far down the road from Monaco. Two hours roughly, according to Valtteri Bottas, though he quipped his personal record was a bit faster… 

Put a ring on it

Vettel got married after Canada

Sebastian Vettel sported a ring this weekend with German colleagues confirming that he had got married to long-term partner Hanna in-between grands prix in Canada and France. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, was given permission by Mercedes to skip Thursday’s media session in order to attend a memorial service for Karl Lagerfeld, which was part of the Paris Fashion Week at which Hamilton was present. Elsewhere Alexander Albon had bought a simulator and had played online with Lando Norris. “In the end we’re all gamers, we’re all nerds, it’s all fun,” he joked. “We race in Skip Barbers or Mazdas. Completely out of the normal. I need to get Lando to send me set-ups, it’s not fun when the guy has a set-up and you don’t! He plays a lot!” Meanwhile Albon’s team-mate, Daniil Kvyat, was not overly enamoured at Paul Ricard. “I wake up in the morning and I know that I'll have to be careful all day long, like driving on a knife edge,” he said of Monaco. “Here it’s very different, let’s say. Or even compared to Australia, let’s say. You have to disregard this. I don't look at the blue lines too much, because if I look at them I don't look at the track. Even in Australia before FP1 you feel this adrenaline. Here? It’s more like... you just need to stay within the white lines.”

Bianchi remembered

There were a few build-up events to the race weekend at Paul Ricard. Ferrari hired out the adjoining kart track and had a team-bonding evening on Wednesday, with Sebastian Vettel and Academy junior Callum Ilott part of the winning squad. Down the coast at Bandol a charity football match was held in memory of Jules Bianchi, who died in 2015 due to the injuries he sustained in the previous year’s Japanese Grand Prix. Bianchi’s family were present, while some of his closest friends in motorsport – Felipe Massa, Daniel Ricciardo, Pierre Gasly, godson Charles Leclerc, Dorian Boccolacci and Norman Nato – played a part in the match. Retired pros Gael Givet and Sebastien Squillaci were among players representing the All Stars team, who clinched victory with a 7-3 score line. 

Second year syndrome

There was definitely a few empty seats

As is usual with new or returning grands prix (pretty much aside from Mexico) attendance was down year-on-year. The grandstands were noticeably sparse on Friday in 2018 before news trickled through about the disastrous traffic incidents that plagued the event. This year organisers had focused on ensuring there were no such repeats, and each day it was mostly free-flowing, though whether that was down to better officiating or simply fewer attendees was open to debate, depending on which side of the fence you sat. 160,000 spectators were present through the weekend in 2018 but that number dipped to 135,000 this year. Not bad for a second year, but it still made the grand prix a very averagely-attended event.