After a week off, Formula One arrived in Le Castellet, France. Fans at the track were treated to French-speaking driver Charles Leclerc, from nearby Monaco, winning pole position on Saturday. But a potential showdown between Leclerc and Max Verstappen ended early in the tire barrier when Leclerc lost control of his Ferrari. Verstappen cruised to victory and likely soon a second championship.
Here are our thoughts following the French Grand Prix.
Immediate reaction: Ferrari does Ferrari things… again
Carlos Sainz was forced to start in the rear, Leclerc started on pole and did a great job to get out in front and hold off Max in the early portion of the race, yet Ferrari managed to have a massively disappointing day. Ferrari continues to hand races to Red Bull and is now allowing Mercedes to get within striking distance of second place. Absolutely mind-blowing.
Driver of the race: Carlos Sainz
I could give this to several drivers, including both Mercedes drivers after they ended up second and third, but Sainz gets it from me. He was forced to go to the rear of the field with a grid penalty for taking a new power unit and managed to drive his way to the podium, only to have to pit and take his five second penalty after being left out on the track for far too long on worn tires.
Moment of the race: Leclerc spins into the tire barrier
Charles managed to get out in front on the start and held off the assault of Max for several laps but after being left out on the track and appearing to be trying a one-stop strategy for some reason, he spun and ended up in the tires, ending his race. Whether it’s bad luck or incompetence, Ferrari continues to squander fast cars and is now looking at a fight with Mercedes to stay in second in the Constructors Standings.
Thoughts moving forward: What happens into and beyond the break?
Red Bull looks to cruise into the break with Max and Checo pulling away in both the Driver and Constructor Championship. Mercedes has continued their gradual climb to speed and consistency which is now allowing them to challenge Ferrari, who has done the opposite. Can Ferrari get their shit together and have a good race going into the break? Does Mercedes continue to make progress and start competing for race wins after the break? I’m not sure, but I’m definitely eager to find out.
All in all, the race was fairly interesting. The colorful stripes lining the French track made for a nice visual and there was enough wheel-to-wheel racing. We saw a few tense first laps between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen, great battles between Checo Pérez and Carlos Sainz and George Russell, and plenty of contact between drivers in the middle of the pack. But it’s hard not to dwell on the race for the win that we were robbed of when Leclerc crashed out of the lead. Verstappen hardly had to think about anything other than managing his own tires for the rest of the day. Instead, fans turned their attention to how many unforced errors Ferrari could make and Mercedes quietly taking advantage of them.
Driver of the race
The driver of the race has to be Carlos Sainz. He had one of the fastest cars all weekend, but knew that he faced a big hurdle having to start at the back of the grid due to an engine penalty. He raced his way into Q3, setting the fastest lap in Q2, and then used the opportunity to set his teammate up on pole. He stormed his way back to the front during the GP, but the old Ferrari strategy bug bit again.
Sainz was mid-top 10 when he radioed to ask his team about pitting. He wanted to pit, but they told him to stay out. So Sainz kept moving up as the end of the race crept closer. He was in a beautiful, exciting battle with Pérez for third when Ferrari inexplicably radioed him to box — literally in the middle of an overtake. He did end up pitting, which mired him back too far to contend for the podium with only a handful of laps remaining. He finished P5.
Mattia Binotto stubbornly defended the team’s decision after the race, saying that Sainz’ tires would not have held up without pitting. No word on why, then, they would not pit earlier when Sainz wanted to so he would have enough laps to race his way back to his previous position. Ferrari seem to think they can continue their CYA strategy, but at this point the whole sport can see that the emperor has no clothes.
Moment of the race
Charles Leclerc’s crash while leading was a truly shocking turning point in the race. Max Verstappen had pitted so Leclerc had a good lead and was not actively racing anyone for position. The broadcast had been monitoring both a lack of rear grip on Leclerc’s car and tire blistering for plenty of the race, but all indications on the radio were that everything was going fine. Ferrari were clearly trying to stay out long enough to execute a one-stop race, despite the wear on their medium compound tires.
Afterward, Leclerc was quick to take responsibility for the accident, chalking it up to driver error. However, Sky Sports analyst and past F1 champion Nico Rosberg thought it was too soon to say what caused Leclerc to lose control of the rear wheels. One only has to think back a few weeks to the image of Binotto shaking a finger in Leclerc’s face to remember that the name of the game is PR and we can trust a team’s version of events about as much as we would trust an injury report from, say, an American football or hockey coach. You decide if you think a world-class driver was pushing too hard with no one behind him and lost control or if some other factor with the car may have played a role.
Thoughts going forward
I’m thinking of the span of 2021-2023 as a turning point in F1 — a corner, if you will. Last year was the beginning of the corner in that Red Bull finally gave Mercedes a run for their money and Verstappen ended Lewis Hamilton’s championship streak (no matter how you feel about how it happened). We’re in the mid-corner this year, where Mercedes missed on the car a bit and Ferrari have come back from a terrible 2021 to look evenly-matched with Red Bull if they can stop hitting themselves in the pants. Although there is half of 2022 left to play out, I think we’re looking at 2023 to show us the conclusion of the corner. Will Mercedes even back up with Red Bull and Ferrari or continue to fade? Will Ferrari fix their decision-making issues and make Verstappen vs. Leclerc the new generation’s battle at the top of the sport? Or will Verstappen cruise to his own era of domination while everyone else falls into a heap of errors behind him? Only time will tell.