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French GP - Preview

2018-06-24 00:00:00 (This report was created at 2018-06-21 14:55:54)

It’s coming home…it’s coming home…Grand Prix Racing is coming home. Ten years on from the last French GP, Formula 1 returns to the home of the sport. Ironically it is also the third French speaking venue in a row this season so at least the race crews will all have eaten well recently which is just as well as it will be wiener schnitzel, fish and chips and bratwurst for the next three races.

Formula 1 was last here in Le Castellet in 1990 when Alain Prost won for Ferrari. The circuit has changed since then and is extensively used for testing and racing in other formulae. Indeed it is the youngest drivers on the grid who will have the most recent experience of racing here.

To some extent a ‘new’ venue can level the playing field but it reality the richer teams will have had more resources to spend on preparing simulations for the track. It used to feature an incredibly long straight but this has been neutered by the introduction of a chicane half way down it. The result is that the track isn’t quite the power circuit as it would have been back in the day.

There are three straights but none are particularly long by F1 standards and the track will require a car with good all round performance. It looks to be at the higher end of the downforce scale, features some long fast sweeping corners along with slow technical parts, harsh braking areas but it lacks the close barriers that have been a feature of three of the last four races this season. There are lots of run off areas and it looks like a very flat, featureless, modern F1 circuit. In my mind it’s more Barcelona than Montreal but there are aspects of both in its make-up.

Spain saw the strongest performance of the season from Mercedes. They dominated all weekend, started 1-2 on the grid, finished 1-2 in the race and they should be expected to be stronger here than in Monaco or Montreal. It may be significant that the track has been recently resurfaced and is said to be giving similar grip levels to Barcelona.

The Mercedes flop, or the Hamilton flop to be more precise, in Canada was a surprise. Yes Mercedes had to cancel the introduction of their upgraded power units at the last minute which meant running older parts but it didn’t cause a very significant loss of power, it was just one of Hamilton’s occasional off races. He can get a bit frustrated and huffy if things don’t go well but Bottas qualified 2nd and finished 2nd which showed that Hamilton was more underpowered than the car.

Presumably Mercedes will have the new power units ready for this and the upcoming races in Austria and Britain which are very much power circuits. Certainly Ferrari, Renault and Honda have all successfully introduced their upgraded units by now and there has been no great shift in the competitive order as a result. Everybody makes a step forward and it’s as you were so to speak.

So who starts as the favourite on this fresh venue? An interesting question but of course it is between the three top teams who have been sharing the wins between them so far. Ferrari has the best all round performer in most people’s eyes but it is far from dominant. They were not the best in Spain, which may be the best form guide for this circuit. Vettel qualified 3rd in Spain, his joint worst grid position of the season and only finished 4th, his joint second worst result of the season. He bounced back with a win from pole position in Canada so take your pick recent form wise but I lean towards the Spanish form line.

Raikkonen has had his chances to shine this season. The car is very competitive, is said to suit his driving style better than any for some time, but he has dropped the ball just at the crucial moment, most obviously in qualifying and it must be said that that he is past his best. Ricciardo would be a great replacement for him next season but I fear Vettel will not stand for that and Kimi may well get another season of underperforming in a top car. His form in both Spain and Canada was underwhelming and it’s hard to see why it would be any different this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton lost his world championship lead in Montreal last time out and with three races in three weekends coming up, he will need to be fully focused otherwise it could get very messy very quickly for him. It must be said that Mercedes have lost some of their lustre this season. They have stumbled at times and their loss of monopoly on pole position is hurting them a lot. Theirs has never been a great car in traffic and it is significant that that his only imperious victory this year came from his pole position in Spain. He did have pole in Australia but lost that on strategy rather than on track performance. He is 2-5 down to Vettel in qualifying and that’s the difference this season. Hamilton has been used to domination and isn’t coping well with the challenges of 2018.

Valtteri Bottas is quietly having a strong season. His recent form is very good with four 2nd places from the last six races and there should have been a 1st and four 2nds but for the last lap puncture which cost him the win in Azerbaijan. He just lacks that bit of raw pace that Hamilton has and is he really racing for wins or playing the role of a safe number two to Hamilton’s starring role at Mercedes?

Ricciardo has two wins under his belt so far this season. The first a well won opportunistic win in China and the other a dominant showing on the freaky Monaco circuit which is a poor guide for almost every other race on the calendar. His pace and the Red Bulls race pace is very good, very competitive but ultimately they are handicapped by the lack of competitiveness in qualifying. Verstappen’s 3rd place on the grid in Montreal may have been a positive sign but the fact remains that Raikkonen blew his flying lap and Hamilton just looked flat all weekend. The Red Bulls look destined to start on the third row at all but the slowest tracks and that his a big head start to give up to Ferrari and Mercedes.

Verstappen has steadied the ship a little with two podium finishes in Spain and Canada. He fluffed his lines in Monaco, a win able race for Red Bull, but the basic pace is still there so long as he keeps his head screwed on. This track will be very good in parts for the Red Bull. There is a really good mixture of sectors, much like Barcelona, and the Bulls are likely to be fastest in at least one. Yes they will lose out on the three straights but in the fast long radius corners and the slow technical sectors they will be hard to beat so maybe they can hope to get a car on the 2nd row if not the 1st.

So it looks like qualifying will play its usual role in setting the agenda for the race. Raikkonen and Bottas don’t really seem to be able to take it to their team mates on Saturday, Raikkonen especially. Bottas is steady enough to take advantage if Hamilton is not on it but the older Finn just can’t string three good sectors together anymore.

Vettel has been the most consistent qualifier this season, averaging a grid position of 1.71 compared to Hamilton’s 2.71 and that might just be were the title is won and lost. Hamilton needs a repeat of his Spanish weekend to get his mojo back in top gear and with the two tracks having similar demands, he might well get it.

The worry for his fans is that he has never raced here, never driven here very much, just a Pirelli tyre test in 2016 I believe, and word is he wasn’t much taken with the place. Barcelona he knows like the back of his hand, but this is unfamiliar. It will be very important to study not only his on track performance this week, but his off track demeanour. If he finds any reason to be down, Hamilton sometimes jumps at it and then his performance suffers. Vettel is more phlegmatic. Yes he can get the red mist at times on track but he rarely talks himself into a poor weekend.

It is hard to split the two for favouritism in my opinion. Hamilton and Mercedes were untouchable in Spain but he was very ordinary in Canada. Vettel was disappointing in Barcelona but very good in Canada. Vettel has generally been more consistent and has the edge in the all-important qualifying so maybe he is favourite, but if this ‘new’ track turns out to be another Barcelona then Hamilton is odds on.

Another factor which may be significant is that Pirelli have reduced the tread depth on the tyres for this weekend by 0.4mm, as they did in Barcelona. There was some scaremongering that this suited Mercedes and accounted for Ferrari’s poor performance but that fizzled out, especially after the post-race tyre test for Pirelli which showed that without the reduction in tread depth the tyres would have grained so badly as to be useless, on the Ferrari as well as the Mercedes.

Most bookmakers concur and can’t split the two, at market best odds you can get Hamilton at 2.75, Vettel 2.80. Neither makes any appeal betting wise at this stage. Pole position odds have the two almost inseparable again with Vettel 2.40 and Hamilton 2.50. We have had seven qualifying sessions so far this season, four poles for Vettel, two for Hamilton and just the outlier of Ricciardo’s pole in Monaco ending the duopoly.

Is there any chance that anything other than a Mercedes or Ferrari will win on Sunday? Only Red Bull has any chance and they have the two race wins already under their belt. One was Monaco which really doesn’t count for much in terms of pointing the way for more wins. The Chinese GP victory shows they can win ‘normal’ races…..if the right circumstances occur. In China it was a safety car deployment which Red Bull took advantage of by pitting both cars at the same time, surprising Mercedes who left Hamilton out on track and lost the lead.

The Red Bull normally has very good race pace (they have five fastest laps from the seven races!), competitive with Ferrari and Mercedes, but to win they have to come from behind, making up three or four positions relative to their qualifying position. We have seen again this season that overtaking in a modern F1 car is very difficult. Yes passing a ‘second division’ car with one of the elite cars is easy enough but the top three teams find it difficult to race each other. That Chinese GP win was won in the pits….not on the track.

The only meritorious win for Red Bull was at Monaco where their lack of power was not an issue and their strength in slow speed corners was everything. Basically the more corners the track has, the better the chances of a Red Bull win or a podium at least. Does the Le Circuit Paul Ricard have enough corners to bring Red Bull genuinely into play? Very possibly.

Most pundits seem to be focusing on this being a power track. Yes it has three straights, not particularly long ones now that the Mistral straight has a chicane in the middle, and about 54% of the lap will be flat out. That isn’t a lot and much of the lap time will be spent in corners, under braking and accelerating out of corners, all areas were Red Bull are at the very least competitive and arguably the class of the field.

They scored a podium at Barcelona and in Canada which suggests that they can do so again this weekend. In fact they have had at least one podium finish in every race this season bar the two were both cars retired (Bahrain and Azerbaijan) so their race pace is not mythical; it’s just the qualifying pace that is stopping them getting race wins.

There is the possibility that Ferrari will suffer the same race pace loss which they suffered at Barcelona. The shaved Pirelli tyres just didn’t work for Ferrari and their return both here and at Silverstone, will be a big worry for them. The track has been re-surfaced with exactly the same asphalt that was used at Barcelona and Silverstone, hence the need for the tread shaving.

The weather is set to be hot on Friday, over 30 degrees but cooling slightly on Saturday and Sunday when it is expected to be 25 degrees. That should leave the track surface pretty hot and maybe we will see some cars struggling with tyres. The left front tyre used to take a beating here and with a few long duration corners on show it will be interesting to see how the various teams cope and who knows we may need more than one pit stop for a change. Ferrari have generally been more effective in hot conditions than Mercedes, except at Barcelona, with those shaved tyres.

Let’s just say that Red Bull may be more of a threat than many expect this weekend, especially if tyre degradation plays a bigger role in the race then we have seen so far.

2 points Ricciardo to set the fastest lap @ 5.00 with Sportingbet

The Aussie has three fastest laps already this season and he also set the fastest lap in Canada but that was taken off him after the race was made a 68 lap race thanks to the chequered flag being shown too early and Ricciardo had set his lap on lap 69. Bottas is the only non-Red Bull driver to have set a fastest lap this season (twice) which underlines the Red Bull race pace.

1 point Ricciardo to win the French GP @ 14.00 with Sportingbet

2 points Ricciardo to finish in the top 3 @ 3.25 with Betvictor, William Hill

Yes, Verstappen has had two podiums in the last three races but Ricciardo hasn’t enjoyed an entirely ‘clean’ weekend for a while with problems in free practice holding him back. He still seems to be the more complete driver at the moment.

Best of the Rest

Renault is top of the second division, those teams who are a second or so off the pace of the top three. This is their home race, their first for ten years and they will want to put on a good display. However there is one team who look likely to be stronger than the home team this weekend.

Haas have had more than their share of bad luck this season and some poor driving has also cost them points but the car has good pace on the right tracks and this looks like one of them. Magnussen finished 6th at Barcelona and that was a race at which they had no updates while their opponents did. The Haas updates came at Montreal and despite not scoring there, they did look much improved, at least in Grosjean’s hands.

The Frenchman has had a poor season, some of it his own fault, but his turbo blowing up in qualifying wasn’t of his making and he came from the back of the grid to finish 12th. He had been strong in the practice sessions and looked like a place in Q3 was a formality. He had been equally competitive in Barcelona were 10th in qualifying was his worst position on Friday and Saturday.

The upgrades introduced at Montreal have pleased the team and they expect that this is a track that will show the improvements to greater effect. Time for Grosjean to take his chance and score some points in his home Grand Prix.

4 points Romain Grosjean to finish in the points @ 3.25 with Betvictor, William Hill

1 point Grosjean to finish in the top 6 @ 5.50 with Sportingbet

2 points Haas to beat Force India @ 2.40 with Sportingbet

Force India is not the team they have been in recent years. Off track they have had problems with money and there are constant reports of the team being sold, not sold, sold and so on. They are only 9 points ahead of Haas and that with Haas poor luck and Force India’s Azerbaijan podium finish. They struggled in Spain and were not impressive in Montreal more recently.

In the third division we have Williams propping up the table. A sad state for a one time giant of the sport. Their car is the only one on the grid that is slower than last year’s model. It’s a dog, a dog that hates corners and there are plenty of long duration bends here which will be torture for both their underwhelming drivers. They did luck into 4 points in the Azerbaijan GP but on merit they are the worst team on the grid.

Sauber had held that title for the last couple of years but with new management, new investment, a link up with Ferrari and the employment of a talented driver in Leclerc, Sauber are now mixing it in the lower midfield, scoring points in four of the seven races so far.

Team morale at Williams is at an all-time low, staff are leaving and they have a problem they can’t fix in a hurry. At Sauber the future looks assured under the wing of their friends at Ferrari.

5 points Sauber to beat Williams @ 1.40 with Sportingbet

-JamesPunt