Sebastian Vettel has sent out a warning shot to his title rivals by finishing quickest in Free Practice 2 for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps on Friday, edging out teammate Mark Webber by just 0.059 seconds to head up a Red Bull one-two.
However, the world champion did not have it all his own way, suffering from a puncture that ended his session early. He had already done enough to secure top spot as the field focused on fuelled runs, with Romain Grosjean, Felipe Massa and Jean-Eric Vergne particularly impressing to tail home the Red Bulls in third, fourth and fifth respectively.
Conditions had improved drastically since the end of free practice one this morning where rain showers had limited meaningful running, with Spa-Francorchamps bathing in bright sunshine under blue skies. The serenity was quickly broken as Jenson Button and Nico Hulkenberg were the first drivers out on track, with the latter’s teammate, Esteban Gutierrez, setting the first benchmark time of 1:52.954 only for Daniel Ricciardo to go a fraction quicker seconds later. Paul di Resta and Pastor Maldonado also occupied P1 momentarily as the teams looked to make up for the lost time in the morning session, resulting in a frantic few minutes on track. Once the order had settled down, it was Sebastian Vettel who led from Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.
With the hard tires thoroughly tested, the first runners began to switch to the white-ringed medium compound, led by Ricciardo in the Toro Rosso. The Australian could only move up to P7 initially, not bothering the leaders who remained in the pits after their initial runs. When they did emerge, Webber set the immediate pace, dethroning his teammate by over one second, only for Vettel to strike back and reclaim P1 minutes later. Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen also set an impressive pace on fresh tires, with both drivers thought to be using the passive DRS device at Spa this weekend. Maldonado also showed signs of good pace throughout the session, suggesting that Williams may have turned a corner in their season.
As the race simulation runs began, the times at the top of the leaderboard came under little threat. Vettel’s engineer reassured the German driver that he was doing a good job as he looks to extend his championship lead this weekend. He will be hoping that he has used up all of his bad luck after a slow puncture forced him to crawl back to the pits with twenty minutes to go. Moments later, Giedo van der Garde speared his Caterham into the wall on the exit of Stavelot, ending his practice session early.
Once the stricken Caterham had been recovered, the yellow flags were withdrawn and the drivers returned to their original programme. However, with heavy fuel on board, none of the drivers could threaten Red Bull’s dominance at the top of the timesheets, suggesting that we could be set for a repeat of the 2011 Belgian GP where Vettel led Webber home in a one-two for the team, barring any punctures of course.
It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.
Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.
Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.
However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.
As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.
And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”
Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.
A Journey Into the Unknown?
Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.
And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.
“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.
That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.
Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth
Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.
Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.
Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.
With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.
Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil
It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.
And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.
As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.
“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”
Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.
“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”
Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.
“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”
Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.