Max Verstappen holds a 12-point lead over Lewis Hamilton atop of the 2021 drivers’ championship
By Yuri Coghe
The two F1 championship contenders had very distinct races at the French Grand Prix Sunday.
Red Bull celebrated a third win in a row with Max Verstappen’s third victory of the season, and their first double podium since the 2020 Sakhir GP as Sergio Pérez finished the race in the third position. Mercedes, on the other hand, had to settle for the second and fourth places with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, respectively, after a failed gamble to pit only once on the Paul Ricard circuit.
The memory of the Spanish GP, won by Hamilton after a successful two-stop strategy, seemed to still be fresh for the winners.
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“We didn’t want to be in the same position as Barcelona,” summarized Red Bull team principal Christian Horner after the race. “It’s always a difficult thing to pit from the lead with 21 laps to go, but that’s what we did … and it worked out. 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.”
Verstappen started the race on pole but went wide on the start, losing first place to Hamilton. The Red Bull driver took the lead back after his first stop, completing a successful undercut on Hamilton. He pitted again on lap 33 for fresh medium tires, dropping to fourth. He overtook Perez and Bottas, proceeding to close the gap to the Briton and eventually overtake his rival with two laps to go.
“It’s difficult because there were quite a lot of backmarkers to go through but luckily they all did well and we could have a good fight to the end,” said Verstappen in the post-race news conference. “Once we made the first pit stop then you could clearly see that on the hard tires they were pushing me hard from behind but then when we made the call to do a two-stop, luckily at the end that paid off. We had to work hard for it but of course very rewarding.”
The move helped the Dutchman extend his championship lead over Hamilton to 12 points, but he doesn’t feel like the favourite just yet. “As you could see the whole race we were fighting each other so I think it will be like this for the rest of the season,” Verstappen said.
Hamilton said he was happy with Sunday’s result despite not taking the win.
“Congrats to Max, he did a great job today,” he said at the post-race news conference. “They just had better strength all weekend and just considering that we had such a difficult Friday I’m really happy with today’s result. Of course, we didn’t win and we were in the lead but I had no tires left at the end and unfortunately lost the position.”
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Sergio Perez now has two podiums in six races for Red Bull, after claiming the win at the Azerbaijan GP and finishing third in France. He sits third in the drivers’ championship with 84 points. “It was important to stay within the leaders,” he said in the post-race conference. “We managed to go quite long on the first stint and I think that really paid off towards the end.”
“We did a good strategy. We went long, very long, on that first stint which really paid out. And I think, yeah, we lacked a couple of laps to get Lewis as well. But I think overall it’s a good result for the team and yeah, it’s showing that it’s some good progress and I just have to keep working on it to get this consistency and take another step very soon,” he added.
Team radio drama
The Mexican driver overtook Bottas late in the race for P3. Even though both drivers had only pitted once, Bottas was struggling way more with the tires than Perez, leaving the Finn to complain on team radio about the tire strategy chosen by the team. “Why the **** does no one listen to me when I say that it’s going to be a two-stopper?” fumed Bottas to his engineer.
“I loved it, that he speaks his mind now and doesn’t internalize,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff after the race. “We still believe the one-stop was the better strategy. But when fighting so strong after the stop, we just stretched the tire, stressed the tires too much to make it all the way to the end.”
Bottas, who is out of his contract with the team at the end of the season and is likely to be on the way out, stuck by his radio message.
“I always try to be direct and I’m glad he (Wolff) liked it but I was not that happy, obviously, in that situation,” he said after the race. “That’s racing, there are emotions. It’s hard to describe that feeling when you are in the car — and we are not in a tea party; we are in an elite top sport. I want to do well, I want the team to do well, so there are emotions, even for a Finn.”
After speaking with team members about the one stop decision, Bottas said he was able to understand the strategy better — even though it didn’t work out at the end.
“Obviously when you’re in the car, you have a bit limited view of the race situation, so it was important to go through everything as well as I always do. So, I do understand the situation better but still, the fact is, in this situation I was in with my tires at that point, it was sub-optimal, but we can’t go back in time, and we always keep learning,” said Bottas.
The 2021 F1 seasons now heads to Austria, which holds a double-header in the next two weekends at the Red Bull Ring.