For the first time in a decade, F1 served up a French Grand Prix and what a relief it was. After consecutive processions in Monaco and Canada, Turn One scrambled the order and sent the race into disarray.
Battles and overtaking continued until the Virtual Safety Car stamped out the final few laps. Championship leader Sebastian Vettel had a blistering start off the line only to have his momentum curtailed by Mercedes and a tight circuit. But he never really made that first corner, clipping the rear tyre of Valtteri Bottas and sending the innocent Finn into a spin. Carnage ensued.
A recently revitalised Max Verstappen made the most of the chaos by logically cutting the corner and slipping into second place while the fast-starting and fortunate Carlos Sainz followed in third. Hamilton avoided the mess and drove off into the distance, not to be seen again until the chequered flag.
The first lap also saw minor contact involving Kimi Raikkonen, Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean with little effect. However, it looked like a McLaren tapped the rear of Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso and sent him right into the back of Esteban Ocon and scattered the field. Neither pilot would drive again on Sunday, becoming the first two casualties after suffering massive damage. Vettel and Bottas limped badly wounded, back to the pits for repairs, re-joining under the safety car in the final two running positions.
Back to earth for Alonso
Last week’s LeMans 24-hour overall winner, Fernando Alonso, was uncharacteristically caught napping by Vettel as the safety period ended and sent himself into a single car spin. It’s a sign of the times for McLaren. His MCL33, suffering from a Williams-esque lack of development, laboured to pass Lance Stroll and was barely past the halfway mark when he called it quits over the radio: "I have no brakes, I have no power, we are out of the points." It could be the start of a long triple-header for the Woking team.
Vettel shows desire
Meanwhile, Vettel was slicing himself through the field. By Lap 11, he was back into the points, leaving Bottas to fall behind. It was later revealed the Mercedes had significant floor damage but, in dropping one of his championship rivals into the dust, Vettel established his desire to race for the win.
It was reminiscent of the 2017 Canadian Grand Prix where another first corner incident left the German needing a front wing change and resulted in a blistering charge up the field. By lap 20, he had climbed into the top five before his performance levelled off and his tyres faded.
Was Vettel going to close the gap to cover off the leading pack’s pit stops, having already made his? It looked that way for a time and the charge of the Ferrari had an impact at Mercedes: Hamilton’s name began repeatedly appearing at the top of the screen while setting multiple fastest laps. The rest of the ultra-competitive top four - Verstappen, Ricciardo and Raikkonen - followed suit, striving to keep pace.
Leclerc continues to impress
Behind the top cars, the camera rightfully focussed on superstar-in-the-making Charles Leclerc. He started fifth, fought everyone and made the Sauber look relatively competitive while his teammate did not. In his hands, a car becomes its best. With a second-rate package, he would finish in the final points position. Make no mistake, this baby-faced assassin will upend the established hegemony in Formula 1.
Elsewhere, the excitement continued, much to the surprise of everyone; Circuit Paul Ricard is not renowned for its passing characteristics. Though, one has to wonder how much of it was due to the top cars being out of position for the entire race.
With 15 laps remaining, Vettel had faded, losing two seconds to Raikkonen after the Finn stopped, and was unceremoniously passed on the back straight. Kimi easily collected the trailing Red Bull of Ricciardo but was too far back to mount any challenge to Verstappen.
With several laps to spare, the race eased and the finishing order was established thanks to an untimely tyre blowout from the Williams of Stroll. With the benefit of a replay, it was obvious his tyre would never last the full distance and he should have pitted for new ones with nothing left to play for.
The safety car sealed an unchallenged win for Hamilton, an opportunistic but well-driven second for Verstappen and a highly competitive third for Raikkonen. Ricciardo would finish fourth, followed by Vettel, who did extremely well to limit the damage from his first-lap incident and resulting five-second time penalty.
Charles Leclerc starred in tenth while all three French drivers had races to forget: Ocon and Gasly out on the first lap, Grosjean struggling and whining on the radio after being passed. He would finish 11th while his teammate, Magnussen, managed sixth - holding off Bottas for the extra points. ç
Remarkably, the entire top 10 finished on the lead lap while the McLaren of Alonso embarrassingly finished last, though he was considered the last of the DNFs. With the obvious exception of Mercedes, the British teams in F1 are struggling.
Both Force India cars did not finish, both Williams were near the bottom and Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren only managed 12th due to retirements of faster cars. The MCL33, VJM11 and the FW41 are all heading in the wrong direction. They now have seven days before Austria and fourteen days before their home Grand Prix in Britain to right their ships. Hopefully, they can salvage dignity before F1’s Silly Season starts after Silverstone.
Still wide open
On the flip side, both Championships are alive and well. Hamilton re-takes the driver’s lead, Ferrari salvages what could have been a horrible weekend to keep pace and Red Bull stands on a good result to edge ever closer to the top two.
It may not be a three-way straight fight but this year is a long way from the predetermined finishes F1 has seen in recent years and even better than 2017 hinted it might be. It was a brilliant weekend performance from Mercedes and a scrappy fight during the race for many positions. F1’s first-ever triple-header weekend started with a bang, let’s see if Austria can breathe more life into the competitive dream in only seven days time.