Redemption in France for Red Bull's Max Verstappen

The Red Bull driver chased down title rival Lewis Hamilton over 20 laps on fresher tyres as he took the first hat-trick of pole position, fastest lap and victory of his F1 career.

Max Verstappen is 12 points ahead of Lewis Hamilton at the top of the F1 drivers standings.   -  Getty Images

Two weeks after tyre failure saw Max Verstappen crash out of the lead at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, when his team asked him to pit from the lead in France, his heart would have sunk. Similar scenarios had played out twice already in 2021, with both ending in favour of Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time champion. At the season opener in Bahrain, Verstappen had pitted for fresher tyres but went wide when attempting an overtake five laps from the end. In Spain, an extra stop allowed Hamilton to reel in and pass Verstappen.

The Dutchman had a four-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, which had miraculously stayed unchanged at the previous race after the reigning world champion went wide while attacking for the lead on the final lap and finished well outside the points.

In the end, Verstappen walked away from Circuit Paul Ricard with a 12-point lead over his title rival and the first hat-trick of pole position, fastest lap and victory of his career, with his Red Bull team extending its lead over Mercedes in the constructors’ race to 37 points at the end of the seventh of a planned 23-race Formula One season. More importantly, Red Bull pulled off a win in a race that tested both drivers’ skills as well as the sharpness of their colleagues in the pit lane, at a track where Hamilton and Mercedes had utterly dominated the previous two races.

READ: French GP: Max Verstappen stretches F1 lead with victory

Strategy calls

Verstappen took a superb pole position by a quarter second at Paul Ricard, ahead of the two Mercedes machines of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, with the Dutchman’s teammate, Sergio Perez, completing the front two rows.

Verstappen blinked at the start, being forced to take the run-off area after turn one and allowing Hamilton through. But the world champion was never really able to pull away, leading by just about three seconds at the pit window when his team made an inexplicable call: bringing in Bottas from third on lap 17 on a track with an exceptionally powerful undercut.

The obvious plan seemed to be for Mercedes to get Bottas ahead of Verstappen and put itself in the best possible position for a one-two finish, something the all-conquering Mercedes — drivers and constructors champions the previous seven years — is yet to achieve this season. But Bottas just wasn’t close enough to undercut Verstappen for second.

Lewis Hamilton has gone three races without a win for the first time since 2019.   -  Getty Images

 

Would the strategy work for Red Bull and Verstappen? After pitting on lap 18, the Dutch driver put in a scintillating out-lap to flash past Hamilton as the Mercedes driver was exiting the pits after coming in on lap 19. Not only did Hamilton lose out to his rival, but now also had his teammate within sniffing distance of his exhaust.

Perez inherited the lead, with the McLaren of Lando Norris behind him. The second Red Bull driver, who won the Azerbaijan GP after his teammate’s and Hamilton’s incidents, finally pitted on lap 24 (as did Norris), but more on him later.
 

READ: Verstappen strives for season-best 4th win at Styrian GP

Red Bull reacts first

Approaching the halfway point in the race, both Verstappen and Hamilton — as well as Bottas in third — harboured doubts about making it to the end of the 53 laps on their hard-compound tyres. With the Spanish GP still fresh in their minds, Red Bull brought Verstappen in for mediums on lap 32, dropping him to fourth behind Perez and with 20 laps to catch — and pass — Hamilton from 20 seconds behind.

Red Bull had pulled the trigger first. Mercedes had to either pit immediately and see out a straight fight between the two racers, or count on Hamilton’s mastery of his art to make his rubber last till the end. The Brackley-based team opted for the latter.

On his newer medium tyres, Verstappen closed to with five seconds of Hamilton with 10 laps left, having gone past his teammate Perez, whose seven-laps-fresher tyres were allowing him to chase Bottas for the final podium spot. Verstappen made his move on the Finn on lap 44, taking position on the inside through Les Signes as the Mercedes driver went slightly off the racing line.

After the front two manoeuvred their way past backmarkers, Verstappen put in couple of blistering laps to place himself right on Hamilton’s rear wing and easily out-braked the Mercedes driver into turn eight of lap 52 as he romped home to his third victory of the season.

While Hamilton was finding grip on tyres that were more than 30 laps old, his teammate was being vocal about Mercedes’ choices on the day: “Why the **** did no one listen to me when I said it would be a two-stop?”

Perez passed the Finn with four laps to go, posting his second consecutive podium finish for Red Bull following his victory at Azerbaijan a fortnight before.

Behind the top four came Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, the two moving McLaren 16 points clear of Ferrari in the battle for third place in the constructors’ championship, on a day the Scuderia failed to score after simply failing to find race pace and dropping through the field.

READ: Schumacher can't expect to have it too easy, says Mazepin

Payback for Red Bull

“We didn’t want to be in the same position as Barcelona,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the race, describing the result as a bit of payback. “Obviously Max had the pace to catch and pass the three cars ahead — it was crucial to get past Bottas quickly. And then it was great to get Lewis. It was a little bit of payback for Barcelona earlier in the year,” he said.

“The feedback from the car was that [Max] didn’t think he’d get to the end. So the strategist presented the options in front of me and said we’ve got nothing to lose. So, we pulled the trigger.

“It would have almost been easier if [Hamilton] maintained track position [ahead of us], because then we would have pulled the trigger anyway. It would have made our decision easier, but to make that call when you’re in the lead and all the tyres are looking okay, it was quite a ballsy call. But it was the fastest way, we felt, at the end of the race.”

Sergio Perez, who took his first victory in his 190th start in F1 at the Sakhir Grand Prix in December with Racing Point, seems to have slotted in seamlessly at Red Bull.   -  Getty Images

 

The victory marked the first time in the turbo-hybrid era of F1 — which began in 2014, the season Mercedes’ dominance began — that Red Bull won three races in a row. But Horner cautioned that it was just a matter of time that Mercedes struck back, despite two home races for Red Bull over two weekends in Austria up next.

“I think strategically we were better in that race. I mean there’s very, very little between the cars,” he said, adding: “We’ve just got to keep that momentum going, because Mercedes are such a strong team. It’s only a matter of time before they bounce back. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.”

READ: Verstappen unhappy with Pirelli blowout explanation  

Behind the front two

Key to Mercedes’ success since its return to F1 in 2013 has been the strength its second driver – Nico Rosberg even pipped Hamilton to the post in 2016. When Rosberg abruptly retired after winning the title, Bottas replaced him at the Silver Arrows and has finished third, fifth, second and second in his four seasons with the Silver Arrows. While not officially playing a “support” role, Bottas has been vital to Hamilton’s overall success, providing a buffer for Mercedes against the surgent Verstappen the last two seasons.

But everything’s not alright with Bottas. Three third places in the first four outings of 2021 were followed by two non-scoring races, and although the Finnish racer finished a place ahead of Norris at Paul Ricard, Bottas is a full 17 points behind him in fifth in the standings. The 21-year-old Brit is on a hot streak, having finished in the points for 12 straight races dating back to November.

But ahead of the two is Perez, who has finished six of his first seven races for Red Bull in the top five. The British-Austrian team had been unable to find a second driver to match its constructors’ championship aspirations the previous two seasons, juggling Pierre Gasly and Alexander Albon between itself and its “junior/sister” Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) team in 2019. But Perez, who took his first victory in his 190th start in F1 at the Sakhir Grand Prix in December with Racing Point, seems to have slotted in seamlessly.

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