The third round of modern Formula 1 at Paul Ricard offered the liveliest and most spectacular edition since the return of the world champion Circus to France. The race offered a hard-fought and uncertain fight for victory until the end, a pure driving and strategy challenge without the aid of additional variables such as rain or the intervention of the Safety Car. The winning key was the courage of the Red Bull wall in calling a two-stop strategy that is anything but obvious, but that Max Verstappen was able to interpret in an exemplary way, realizing the strategic foresight of his engineers.
The seventh round of the 2021 World Championship marked the return to a permanent track after the two trips to the city in Monte Carlo and Baku, six weeks after the last race at the circuit in Barcelona. At the time, Mercedes prevailed which, net of the decisive strategy of making a second stop to overtake Red Bull, showed a clear superiority in race pace thanks to better management of the rear tires. At Paul Ricard the return of the Silver Arrows was therefore expected in the role of favorite, but the events of the French weekend have once again highlighted how precarious the hierarchies are this season, continually subject to the progression of the development and understanding of the cars by the teams.
Sergio Perez himself on the eve had declared how much the data analysis work for the validation of increasingly effective structures had progressed after the last direct comparison in Spain: “We come from Baku and obviously this is a very different track. But we’re continuing our good time. Understanding of the car is improving […]”. At Le Castellet Verstappen in fact trimmed two and a half tenths in qualifying to the direct challenger for the title, a margin built largely in the third sector of the track, denoting, among many aspects, a better thermal management of the Red Bull tires during the flying lap, thus able to preserve the tires up to the last meters.
The balance of performance between Mercedes and Red Bull means that the set-up choices can make the difference in the 2021 world championship and once again a differentiation has emerged between the two teams. In detail, Red Bull evaluated two different rear wings on Friday, and then opted for the lighter version with a greater downward curvature of the spoon profile (version 1). This is in particular the new specification introduced in Baku, characterized by a simplified external endplate and devoid of blowing and auxiliary appendages, to reduce the resistance to advancement as much as possible.
The more unloaded set-up was decisive, as allowed Verstappen to attack the Mercedes more easily on the Mistral straight and to defend against the Silver Arrows when they were particularly aggressive after the second stop. The lower downforce, however, proved counterproductive on the graining front, a phenomenon accentuated by the rain that fell in the morning which washed the tires on the trajectory, lowering the average level of grip. Not by chance the heavier set-up adopted at Mercedes put Lewis Hamilton more at ease on the race pace, as demonstrated by the Englishman’s ability to stretch on Verstappen in the first stint and to be able to stay in the Dutchman’s wake for a long time after the break.
A bold move
However, Red Bull still managed to prevail, first thanks to the determination of Max Verstappen after the first stop, with the Dutchman who was the author of a masterful lap out of the pits, to the point of taking the rivals against time and concretizing the undercut. Subsequently the Red Bull wall showed great courage in daring with the strategy that led to the final success. Just over halfway through the race it was not yet clear whether it was convenient to make a second stop, as underlined by the reduced margin with which Verstappen then managed to prevail over Hamilton. The Milton Keynes technicians found themselves in the difficult position to decide whether to make the second pit stop and give up the position on the track or continue without the opportunity to mark a possible second stop of the Mercedes, with the risk of suffering the return of Hamilton as already happened in Spain this season or in Hungary in 2019.
The courage and readiness of the call ultimately proved to be a winner, allowing it to stretch in both rankings. Red Bull has highlighted how its competitiveness is intact despite the new stricter directives on the flexion of the rear wings and on the control of static inflation pressures, both of which came into effect at Paul Ricard. Mercedes, on the other hand, has shown that it is still perfectly capable of competing with the Anglo-Austrian team and, with the understanding of the cars that will improve further between now and the end of the season, the hierarchies appear to be anything but frozen.
Tire pressures: from confusion to countermeasures
Ferrari: from double pole to double zero
At the center of the group the judgment is divided between the analysis of the qualifications and that of the race. The Paul Ricard was on paper one of the most difficult tracks for Ferrari, still lacking in the long-distance curves at medium-high speed abundant on the French track, opposed to the 90 ° folds of Baku and Monaco that enhanced the qualities of the Red. The two SF21s, on the other hand, were the fastest on Saturday behind Mercedes and Red Bull, with Gasly’s AlphaTauri as the only car capable of preventing the Reds’ front row in the center-group battle.
In the race, however, the situation was reversed and both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz finished outside the points, slowed down by a conspicuous graining on the tires. As well as in Baku, the Scuderia di Maranello served the decision of a more exhausted set-up in the race, with the spoon rear wing preferred to the straight profile one tested on Friday. The impression is that the preference for unloaded set-ups is driven by the desire to reduce drag and with it consumption, as well as to compensate for the speed shortages on the straight due to the gaps in the power unit without having to resort to excessively aggressive mapping. . The lower downforce, however, translates into greater instability, therefore greater wear on the tires which affects the pace of the race. The washing of the track in the morning by the rain further exacerbated the graining, but we cannot fail to underline that at the halfway point of the race Leclerc was even slower for the same compound than Lance Stroll, who preceded him with tires older than 14 laps.
Castellet in the air
Ferrari is now suffering a 16-point delay in the constructors’ standings behind McLaren. The consolation for the Scuderia di Maranello is that the championship standings as at 30 June will determine the allocation of the wind tunnel hours that can be used by the teams for the second half of 2021. Barring a difficult counter-overtake in the first race in Austria, Ferrari will therefore have 2.5% more resources for aerodynamic tests for the development of the 2022 car.
Ferrari, development on the SF21 stopped
With regard to development, what could be the latest updates for the SF21 debuted in France. A new front wing was mounted on the Rossa, equipped with a wider section for the adjustable profile and a different design of the external sidewalk for the management of the vortexes directed to the rear. The rear wing has also been re-profiled in the design of the vertical strips of the endplate.
McLaren goes on the counter-offensive, AlphaTauri fifth force
After a qualifying on the edge of disappointment, McLaren disputed a race as a protagonist and decisively regained third place in the world championship. Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo defined the double win of the Woking team in the mid-group challenge, won despite the adoption of two different strategies that testify to the value of the MCL35M. Unlike Ferrari, the English team managed to contain the damage on the most difficult tracks such as Baku and Monaco, and then placed the decisive thrust on a track more congenial to the car’s qualities.
The latest updates made in Woking also debuted for the Paul Ricard. On the nose, two winglets have been added, the appendages widely spread on the grid that contribute to the management of the direct flow to the center of the car and to the rear. The rear wing, on the other hand, was equipped with an external endplate characterized by a different configuration of the blowers that condition the pressure field behind the car and the process of extracting the flows from the diffuser. This change is accompanied by the inverted S blows in the upper part introduced during the tests and inspired by Red Bull. All in all, McLaren has developed an extensive package of updates since the beginning of the season, also including two evolutionary steps of the bottom and a new front wing.
Finally, the French Grand Prix confirms the excellent form of Gasly and AlphaTauri, who finish in seventh position in the wake of Ricciardo’s McLaren. The Scuderia di Faenza thus strengthens its extraordinary fifth place in the constructors’ standings, whose defense, however, does not appear simple, looking at the Aston Martin only five points away, which still places two cars in the points zone. The determination of the Italian team to believe in fifth place, however, is reflected in the ongoing development of the AT02, as evidenced by the new fund introduced to Paul Ricard.
The world championship now moves to the mountains of Styria for the double appointment of the Red Bull Ring. The Austrian track is presented as fast, technical and at the same time distant from the tracks of the last rounds, with the altitude which will be an important variable in defining the hierarchies.