McLaren, Jenson Button nearly made one-stop race work

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Spa’s one of the greatest race tracks in the world and often produces some of the best races. It was still an amazing track on Sunday, but the race itself in Belgium may not go down in history as an all time great.

In terms of strategy, the teams this weekend had some difficult decisions to make for more than one reason.

Pirelli brought the two hardest dry compounds in their current range to this event and that brought with it a different set of challenges to those faced at some other circuits on the calendar. Degradation wasn’t so much of a concern, but the varying temperatures and conditions meant the goalposts for drivers and engineers trying to tune their cars or driving styles in order to switch-on the tires, was constantly moving.

With everybody setting their qualifying times on intermediate tires in mixed conditions, not only was the starting order shuffled, but the choice of Sunday’s starting compound became free in the dry. This opens up the possibility of various strategic options for everybody and calculations beforehand had a dry race being marginally faster using a two stopper than a one stop plan, albeit with not too much in it.

The major unknown variable of course, as is often the case here, would be the weather.

Almost everyone’s information said there would be rain today, no one could be confident of when or how much, but there had to be an element of flexibility factored into every strategy. That information, didn’t just affect teams on race day, but dictated the way they approached Saturday’s qualifying too.

This track has a long lap and two of its three sectors are very fast, long straights with high-speed turns. The middle sector is the opposite, tight, slow and twisty. There are different ways to approach the car setup, with either low or medium downforce levels helping for different parts of the lap, but whichever way you choose to go, there’s always a compromise to be made.

Lotus opted for a higher level of aerodynamic downforce than many of the other top teams, which helped them through sector two. In their case it was deemed to give them an overall laptime gain over being fast in the high speed sections, but losing out too much in the middle part of the lap. Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari all went the other way and set themselves up for a higher top speed.

Interestingly, the Red Bull, which traditionally isn’t the fastest in a straight line, came up with a low downforce package for this race that proved far more efficient than it’s rivals and it was that speed advantage which proved crucial to Sebastian’s victory.

In terms of tires, most of the leaders went with a similar medium/medium/hard strategy, which was the optimum, as everyone was in the unfamiliar position of entering the race with plenty of new sets available, having run much of the weekend in wet conditions.

The key for the eventual winner, as we’ve seen him do many times before, was to get past Hamilton early and break the DRS gap before the system was activated on lap 3. His extra top speed advantage enabled him to do just that and the aggressive move up the hill from Eau Rouge on lap one gave him the perfect opportunity. The dominance of the Red Bull at this circuit, a place where traditionally they haven’t gone well in the past, is an ominous sign for everyone else. Vettel was able to control the race with such ease, he was never out of the lead from that point on and was being reminded by his team as early as lap three to conserve the car.

Behind him, Hamilton faded with a car that simply wasn’t in the same league. The team got everything right in terms of their strategic options and probably got as much as they could from the weekend. Ferrari showed real promise here, a huge improvement after recent events, and Fernando was one of the biggest movers in the race. Good decisions on when to stop helped put him in a position to fight for positions and his great start meant he was Vettel’s closest challenger. However, the truth is that, try as he did, he had nothing left to close the gap that the triple world champion stretched out to seventeen seconds before backing off at the end of the race.

One of the more interesting strategic choices came from McLaren and Jenson Button. They decided to gamble on a one-stop race, hoping rain might play into their hands at some point. Although the rain never came, his pace was good, but he quickly realized that he couldn’t go far enough into the first stint to make the single stop work. The switch to a two stop plan still kept him firmly in the mix and he was running in the top six when it came to making the second stop. Having run mediums then hards, there was a moment when it may have been considered a worthwhile option to stay out and run to the end, but the team felt a long stint to the flag may have left him vulnerable towards the end.

It was probably  true, but had he managed to extend his early spell on mediums for another five or six laps, the option may’ve been a viable one. As it was, his second stop for hard tires dropped him back and although his pace was up there with the leaders, his track position left him with nothing more to fight for. Still, a far more positive weekend for the McLaren team.

The only one-stop strategy in the end came from Lotus and Romain Grosjean, but the high drag, high downforce setup left him unable to make up the ground he needed to and fighting in the middle of the pack cost him too much time in the end. He was another one who needed the intervention of rain to bring him back into play.

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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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.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

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

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

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.

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