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Masterclass in Strategy
The Grand Prix of France
Text & Photos | Thomas Lam
Edit | Henry Lau

Max Verstappen caught Mercedes napping with a brilliant “look-a-like” two-stop strategy to overtake Lewis Hamilton with just one lap remaining to win the 2021 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard.


Overview

Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France is notorious for producing dull races, but Verstappen and Hamilton created a stunning battle as their fortunes swung back and forth.

Copying the same Mercedes “power of the undercut,” playbook Lewis Hamilton used to defeat the Dutchman last month in Spain, a very calm and calculated Verstappen returned the trick, converting what seemed a desperate early pitstop into a convincing overtake of Hamilton on the penultimate lap.

Strategy

The Dutchman’s brilliant strategy was especially sweet payback for gifting the lead to Hamilton after running off the track on the second corner of the first lap.

Red Bull’s victory in France was a truly significant moment. For the first time in the turbo-hybrid era, Red Bull have managed three consecutive wins, a shift in momentum that is only growing stronger.

Despite every driver struggling with more significant tyre degradation than had been expected in the cooler conditions at Paul Ricard on race day compared to the rest of the weekend, Red Bull had an answer.

Last Lap Dash

They voluntarily gave up track position for the second half of the race to set up another last lap finish similar to the 2019 Hungarian GP and the 2021 race in Spain.

Hamilton had no time to recover and took second place 2.7s behind the Dutchman. Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez applied even more pain to Mercedes by soundly disposing of Valtteri Bottas with four laps remaining to take the final podium position.

Qualifying

Max Verstappen dominated qualifying for the French Grand Prix to put his Red Bull on the pole.

The championship leader finished 0.258 seconds clear of title rival Lewis Hamilton with his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas third at the Paul Ricard circuit.

Sergio Pérez would start fourth in the other Red Bull ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly.

Despite Hamilton taking the past two editions of the French Grand Prix and winning both rounds from pole, the seven-time world champion did not have an answer for the pace of Red Bull and Verstappen.

The Grand Prix of France

At the start, Verstappen jumped into the lead from Hamilton and looked in command as he charged through Turn 1. However, as he blasted around the fast left-hander and began to set up for Turn 2, the Red Bull driver had to catch a sudden slide.

The Dutchman lurched off track as he caught the slide, keeping tight inside of the second corner, but the damage was done – Hamilton seized the lead. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) held third place, ahead of Sergio Perez (Red Bull), Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) and Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri).

By Lap 8, Hamilton led Verstappen by 1.7s, with Bottas another 2.8s back. It took until Lap 10 for Pérez to close

up to the three cars ahead of him, suggesting he might be playing the long game.

Behind Ferrari’s seventh-placed Charles Leclerc, McLaren duo Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris passed Fernando Alonso’s Alpine on Lap 11 to run eighth and ninth. Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel, who passed Alonso’s team- mate Esteban Ocon early on, also overtook Alonso two laps later.

Bring It

Suddenly, Bottas complained of tyre graining and was told to “bring it”. He was 2.5s behind Verstappen, who was three seconds behind Hamilton. The Finn rejoined on Lap 18 in fourth, but well behind Pérez.

Bottas’ stop triggered Verstappen (who had dropped 3s behind Hamilton) into responding on the next lap. He was stationary for 2.3s and returned in second place. Hamilton pitted on Lap 20 as Pérez inherited the lead.

Meanwhile, Verstappen had his foot down, and as Hamilton rejoined on Lap 21, both driver’s were side-by- side going into Turn 1. Verstappen slipped ahead of the Brit, taking full advantage of the undercut to retake the lead he’d lost in the opening seconds of the race.

Such was the pace that by Lap 29 of 53, Verstappen reported, “We cannot keep this up until the end of the race, that’s for sure”. Hamilton echoed the same news on Lap 31 and wanted to be the first to pit this time.

Undercut

No such luck. Verstappen dove for the pits first on Lap 32 for the undercut, re-entering with a set of mediums. Up ahead, Hamilton held off Bottas. Verstappen was only 2s behind Pérez on Lap 34 and 17.2s off the leader Hamilton. Pérez prepared to get out of the way when Verstappen closed.

By Lap 37, it was too late for Mercedes to pit. Their strategy? With 15 laps to go, Verstappen would have to pass both Mercedes if he was to win at Paul Ricard. However, Mercedes didn’t grasp Verstappen was flying – he would be on their tails in seven or eight laps.

On Lap 39, Hamilton led Bottas by 1.7s and Verstappen by 8.7, with the Dutchman closing a second a lap.

Verstappen caught Bottas with ten laps remaining, while Hamilton had extended his lead to over 4s. Verstappen passed Bottas at Signes on Lap 44 and was 5s behind Hamilton.

Pérez Pushes

As Verstappen closed on Hamilton – running 3s behind with five laps remaining – Pérez caught Bottas, passing him around the outside of Signes on Lap 49 for the final spot on the podium.

Verstappen was finally within DRS range at the start of the penultimate lap – the gap at 0.7s. He seized the lead back at the first opportunity, heading into the chicane on the Mistral Straight.

Verstappen had closed in rapidly with DRS, and although Hamilton defended to the inside, the Red Bull could get alongside on the left-hand side approaching Turn 8. Verstappen sealed the deal at the apex of the first part of the chicane.

In the Clear

The Dutchman pulled clear over the final lap and a third, winning by 2.9s, with Pérez coming home third ahead of Bottas as the Mexican driver was able to bring his offset one-stopper tyre life advantage to bear in the closing stages.

Lando Norris was another driver to make a late stop on the one-stopper work to his advantage, as he climbed the order to finish fifth, ahead of team-mate Ricciardo.

Pierre Gasly finished seventh ahead of Fernando Alonso, with Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll coming home in the final points-paying positions for Aston Martin.

“This one’s on us,” chief strategist James Vowles said on the radio to Hamilton after the race, acknowledging the error. “Thank you for doing everything you could to recover that race.”