Red Bull Motorsports
There are race wins in Formula One and there are race wins worth much more than merely 25 world championship points. Don't take our word for it; the day before Sunday's French Grand Prix at the Circuit Paul Ricard, Red Bull Racing Honda team principal Christian Horner dared to dream at a track where Mercedes has typically trampled the rest of the field.
"This circuit, it's been such a stronghold for Mercedes over the recent years. If we can beat them here, then really we can beat them anywhere," Horner said.
Fast-forward 24 hours and maybe Horner was onto something. Not only did Max Verstappen win his third Grand Prix of the year from pole position, the Dutchman's team-mate Sergio Pérez made it onto the rostrum as well in third place. The two Red Bulls were split by reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, the Mercedes driver demoted to second by Verstappen on the second-last lap of the 53-lap race.
Wins from pole are de rigueur at Paul Ricard and so dominant has Mercedes been since the circuit came back onto the calendar in 2018 that Hamilton had led all but one lap in two years. Red Bull and the rest struggling to get a look in.
However, Verstappen's brilliant pole on Saturday looked to have come to nought on Sunday when he ran deep into the first corner and relinquished track position to Hamilton. But a Red Bull Racing strategic masterstroke – pitting Verstappen for a second set of fresh tyres, so he could hunt Hamilton down at the end – hit the bullseye when the Dutch driver breezed by with a lap and a half remaining.
Listen to the podcast below to hear an exclusive chat with Max and his legendary father Jos Verstappen.
Pole, win, fastest lap and an extension of his Drivers' Championship lead to 12 points – Sunday afternoon drives in the French Riviera don't come much sweeter.
Here's what went down on what we might look back on as a significant day in the 2021 championship in France.
Verstappen's two stops to top step
Red Bull Racing Honda came into Sunday's race having never led a lap at Paul Ricard and the near-inevitability of that stat changing looked shaky after Verstappen ran deep into the first corner, gathered up the car after a significant wobble and forlornly dropped in behind Hamilton, the Mercedes man stretching away at a circuit where he's very familiar with that winning feeling. But it was from there that things swung in Verstappen's favour.
A Lap 18 pit stop for Verstappen caught Mercedes on the hop and when Hamilton pitted a lap later, the Dutchman did enough on his first lap out of the pits to leapfrog back into the lead at a circuit where track position is usually king. With most pre-race predictions leaning towards just one pit stop, Red Bull then elected to turn up the strategic heat on Mercedes by bringing the Dutch driver in for a second stop with 21 laps to go and arming him with brand-new tyres with which to storm up to Hamilton's rear wing for the final laps.
Hamilton stuck it out, but once Verstappen vaulted past his team-mate Valtteri Bottas with nine laps left, the game was up – and the lead, plus the win, were soon his. It was swift and decisive payback for the pain of losing a win at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix a fortnight ago because of a tyre blowout in the final laps.
"We made the call to do the two-stop and luckily it paid off, but we had to work hard for it," Verstappen said of a victory he called "very rewarding".
"At the beginning it was super windy out there. One lap you would have an OK balance and then the next lap you were just sliding everywhere, so it was really difficult to keep the car stable."
Verstappen earned an extra point for setting the fastest lap of the race on lap 35 and saw Sunday's race as the latest instalment of a head-to-head with Hamilton he expects to last all the way to the December finale in Abu Dhabi: "The whole race we were fighting each other, so I think it will be like that for the rest of the season."
Asked by former driver turned TV pundit Martin Brundle if he enjoyed the race, Verstappen paused and grinned: "Towards the end, yes."
The win made it three-in-a-row for Red Bull Racing Honda for the first time in the V6 turbo hybrid era, which stretches back to 2014.
Pérez picks up more silverware
Pérez was the beneficiary of his team-mate's misfortune in Baku, picking up his first victory for Red Bull in just his sixth start for the team. While he'd never previously scored a point at Paul Ricard, the Mexican was mildly annoyed with himself after qualifying fourth, a leery moment at Turn 12 on his final lap in Q3 stopping him from joining Verstappen on the front row.
Pérez's race was, in customary Pérez style, a slow burn with a strong finishing kick. As Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas cleared off in the early stages, he didn't abuse his tyres, kept his head down and ran a long opening stint of the race, pitting five laps later than the front-running trio to put himself back in the podium mix.
As Bottas debated with his pit wall over whether or not to make a second tyre stop, Pérez methodically ate into the Finn's advantage to jump him with four laps left, a cannily-taken second podium of the year seeing him consolidate third place in the Drivers' Championship standings and extending Red Bull Racing's advantage over Mercedes to 37 points in the Constructors' Championship.
"The first five to 10 laps, the car was pretty much undrivable with the wind," he admitted afterwards. "We ran less downforce today, so it was hard to keep up from behind. But then, as the wind was getting calmer, I started to pick up my rhythm and I managed to go quite long on my first stint. That really paid off towards the end."
Gasly's home haul, Tsunoda's heavy hit
Pierre Gasly retained eighth place overall in the standings after a solid run to seventh place at his home Grand Prix for Scuderia AlphaTauri. While it was the Frenchman's best result at home in three attempts, he admitted he was left wanting more on a day where he started from sixth on the grid and was jumped by the undercutting Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) in the pit stops.
"Overall, I think it was a really positive day," he said. "I think we were the fourth-best car at the end of the race behind the two McLarens, two Red Bulls and two Mercedes, so I think we can't expect much more."
That Gasly started from as high as he did was testament to his ability to pull a lap out of the bag under immense pressure. His first lap in the final phase of qualifying was scrubbed from the timesheets for exceeding track limits at Turn 6 coming onto the Mistral Straight.
Team-mate Yuki Tsunoda came to Paul Ricard with more experience than either of the recent street circuits in Monaco and Baku having raced in France in Formula 3 in 2019, but his chance of points was over before the race even began after clattering into the fence on the outside of Turn 1 in qualifying.
Tsunoda started from the pit lane after significant repairs, including a new gearbox and floor, and raced to 13th place at the chequered flag.
McLaren strikes back, Aston Martin's hard charge
After Ferrari took pole in Monaco and Azerbaijan, courtesy of Charles Leclerc, and scored 34 points in those two races, the Scuderia jumped ahead of McLaren for third in the Constructors' Championship.
McLaren bounced back in a big way at Paul Ricard, though. Fifth place for Lando Norris and sixth for Ricciardo after some trademark feisty overtaking gave the team its strongest result since Imola in round two, leaving Ferrari marooned on 94 points after Carlos Sainz (11th) and Leclerc (16th) failed to score.
Elsewhere, Aston Martin used a disappointing Saturday, where neither Sebastian Vettel (12th) nor Lance Stroll (19th) could make it into Q3, as a spur to try something different on race day. Both drivers undertook marathon first stints in the race on hard tyres to finish ninth and 10th respectively on a day of zero attrition – all 20 cars who started the race saw the chequered flag.
Two swings at the Red Bull Ring
What's better than three wins in a row for Red Bull Racing Honda? Perhaps the fact that the next two races are at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with the Styrian Grand Prix on June 27 preceding the Austrian GP the following Sunday, July 4, as part of the season's first triple-header as the 23-race campaign picks up speed into the summer.
After two races in front of empty grandstands last year, the circuit looks set to play host to some spectators this year and if past races and present form are any guide, expect most of them to be wearing orange.
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