IN­SIDE F1

AT THE TIME OF WRIT­ING, DI­RECTLY AF­TER THE FRENCH GP AT PAUL RICARD, A THIRD OF 2018’S F1 SEA­SON HAD BEEN DONE, WITH NO SIGN YET OF OUT­RIGHT DOM­I­NANCE FROM EI­THER TI­TLE PRO­TAG­O­NIST, HAMIL­TON OR VET­TEL, AS EGMONT SIPPEL RE­PORTS.

Driven - - Motorsport - Re­port by EGMONT SIPPEL | Im­ages © FER­RARI / HAAS F1 / MERCEDES-AMG / RED BULL CON­TENT POOL / SKY SPORTS TOPSY-TURVY MONACO, CANADA & FRANCE Above

It re­ally runs the gamut, F1. It can be sublime and oh so cruel. Ex­cit­ing and oh so dull. Re­ward­ing and oh so fickle and frus­trat­ing.

Take the French GP, just the other day. Not much was ex­pected of the first race in a decade hosted on soil which birthed Brigitte Bar­dot, Charles de Gaulle and mo­tor rac­ing it­self. On the face of it, Paul Ricard is an ut­terly bor­ing track, flat as a pan­cake, with most of the cir­cuit com­plex hav­ing been cov­ered by a mas­sive ex­panse of tar­mac on which a va­ri­ety of per­mu­ta­tions yields 180 dif­fer­ent track con­fig­u­ra­tions, all very tech­ni­cal.

Es­sen­tially, the lay­out con­sists of two mas­sively long straights– one of them named af­ter the pre­vail­ing Mis­tral wind – joined to­gether at their ex­trem­i­ties by a cou­ple of loopy curves. Hav­ing been built on a plateau in the Le Castel­let re­gion on the south­ern coast of France, it is fea­ture­less enough to goad even top jockeys into over­driv­ing.

The best bit about Ricard, in fact, re­sides a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres fur­ther up the coast, in the form of St Tropez’s 83-year-old Brigitte Bar­dot.

Which goes to show what lit­tle en­thu­si­asm a re­turn to Ricard man­aged to whip up, given that BB is em­phat­i­cally not the gal she used to be.

PAUL RICARD HIS­TORY The track does have some his­tory, though. Mauri­cio Gugelmin locked-up there in

1989, into Turn One, trig­ger­ing a mas­sive pile-up, with Gugelmin’s Ley­ton House March launched into a ter­ri­fy­ing bar­rel-roll be­fore land­ing up­side-down.

A year later, March was in the news again when Ivan Capelli came within three laps of a stun­ning up­set. The team’s aero­dy­nam­i­cist? Hamil­ton ex­its the pits in France, on his way to claim­ing vic­tory num­ber 65. One Adrian Newey, the aero and chas­sis ge­nius be­hind to­day’s Red Bull.

In 2001, Toy­ota also chose Ricard to show off their first ever F1 car.

And it was on the nar­row pub­lic road wind­ing down from the track to the Mediter­ranean that head hon­cho of the Wil­liams F1 team, Sir Frank, crashed a Ford Sierra in 1986, an ac­ci­dent from which he emerged as a tetraplegic, which re­signed him to a fu­ture in a wheel­chair.

So, yes, Cir­cuit Paul Ricard has some his­tory.

But no­body ex­pected what we got in Le Castel­let in June, which was an ut­terly en­thralling Grand Prix.

SAFETY CAR AND CANADA

The French race was helped along, of course, by the de­ploy­ment of a safety car, which seems to be the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor in all the ex­cit­ing 2018 events that we’ve had

up to this point, bar the Cana­dian GP (which pre­ceded Ricard).

In Mon­treal, Se­bas­tian Vet­tel sim­ply stroked his Fer­rari to an im­pe­ri­ous win on the Ile Notre-Dame is­land, the 50th vic­tory of his il­lus­tri­ous F1 ca­reer, mak­ing the Ger­man only the fourth driver to have reached the half-cen­tury mark, the oth­ers be­ing Prost (51 wins), Hamil­ton (65) and Schu­macher (91).

Vet­tel’s on­slaught on a track where Hamil­ton has dom­i­nated over the last decade started with a riv­et­ing pole­grab­bing scorcher in Q3. With six vic­to­ries al­ready to Hamil­ton’s name (in­clud­ing his maiden F1 win in 2007), Lewis owns the Cir­cuit Gilles Vil­leneuve.

Yet, with­out the an­tic­i­pated fresh new en­gine, the Mercedes-AMG W09 was no match for the Fer­rari SF71H equipped with just that: an up­dated power plant – al­though The Ham­mer’s team­mate, Valt­teri Bot­tas, gave Vet­tel a proper run for his money on Satur­day.

With Red Bull’s Max Ver­stap­pen also on song, Hamil­ton was rel­e­gated to fourth on the grid and then strug­gled on Sun­day with a cool­ing is­sue which pre­vented max­i­mum at­tack.

Ad­just­ing some in­let lou­vres dur­ing his pit stop cost the English­man a fur­ther place, to Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, leav­ing Vet­tel un­chal­lenged at the front to re­take the lead in the driver’s cham­pi­onship, al­beit only by a sin­gle point.

There was some con­fu­sion when Cana­dian fash­ion model and friend of Hamil­ton, Win­nie Har­low, waved the che­quered flag (un­der in­struc­tion, it must be said) at the end of the penul­ti­mate lap. Win­nie didn’t wave the flag early enough to pre­vent a calami­tous get-to­gether between Stroll and Hart­ley, but none of the re­sults were af­fected in the end, ex­cept that Ver­stap­pen – in­stead of Ric­cia­rdo – bagged fastest lap on the count­back.

MONACO

Speak­ing of which: Danni Ricc was pure gold in Monaco, the race which pre­ceded Canada.

The Red Bull chas­sis worked a dream in the con­fines of the Prin­ci­pal­ity and Ric­cia­rdo’s pole lap was breath­tak­ing, while team­mate Max suf­fered the in­dig­nity of hav­ing clob­bered the Armco at the exit of the swim­ming pool com­plex, ex­actly as he did two years ago.

On Sun­day, though, the ebul­lient Aussie had to nurse his car home, hav­ing lost two of eight gears on top of a mis­fir­ing en­gine which cost him 120 kW, re­sult­ing in a V-max dis­ad­van­tage of 30 km/h, com­pared to Vet­tel’s Fer­rari.

Bor­ing the race might have been to the ca­sual observer, but this was a master­class in de­fen­sive driv­ing, de­liv­er­ing re­demp­tion af­ter the team’s ter­ri­ble tyre faux pas in the pits two years ago, which robbed Danni Ricc of a well-de­served vic­tory.

Just like twelve months ago, Mercedes again had a lack­lus­tre out­ing in the Prin­ci­pal­ity this year, with the car fail­ing to heat up its tyres. Tight twisty tracks just ain’t the three-pointed star’s thing; watch out for Red Bull and Fer­rari dom­i­nance in Bu­dapest on 29 July.

GRAND PRIX DE FRANCE

No such prob­lem for the Benz boys in France, though. With a fresh new en­gine strapped into the back of his W09, and with Pirelli’s thin­ner gauge tyre, on which Mercedes per­formed so out­stand­ingly well in Spain, Hamil­ton clinched pole with Bot­tas se­cur­ing an all-Merc front row, ahead of Vet­tel in third and Ver­stap­pen in fourth.

On the softer tyre, Seb had a su­per start off the line, but he got boxed in between Hamil­ton and Bot­tas and lost it un­der brak­ing for Turn One, skid­ding straight on to punt Valt­teri’s car into a spin and punc­ture its left rear with the Fer­rari’s right front end-plate.

Seb re­gained the track, only to be in­volved in an­other skir­mish (this time with Gros­jean) in which the Ger­man lost the left side of his front wing, while Gasly and Ocon also man­aged to tan­gle, turn­ing their home Grand Prix into a poi­soned af­fair for Les Trois Mous­que­taires.

In the en­su­ing blitz af­ter hav­ing pit­ted for a new nose and tyres, Vet­tel de­stroyed his rub­ber, giving Räikkö­nen a chance, for once, to pass his team­mate. Dis­pens­ing of Ric­cia­rdo as well, placed the Finn on the podium, next to Ver­stap­pen and the vic­to­ri­ous Hamil­ton, who– in a sea­son of swings and round­abouts – leads Vet­tel by 14 points go­ing into Aus­tria (1 July 2018).

Vet­tel got a five-sec­ond penalty for his first cor­ner blun­der, which left most on­look­ers per­plexed, as Ver­stap­pen got a 10-sec­ond penalty ear­lier in the year in China for a sim­i­lar mis­de­meanour, al­beit that the Dutch­man tried to ex­e­cute a pass.

Seb, by con­trast, sim­ply lost con­trol, which ru­ined Bot­tas’s race to such an ex­tent that the per­pe­tra­tor – Vet­tel – still man­aged to fin­ish ahead of his innocent vic­tim.

Fur­ther back, Kevin Mag­nussen put in a stonk­ing drive to bring his Haas home in sixth place.

The French GP was the open­ing act of F1’s first ever triple­header. By the time you read this, the Aus­trian GP (1 July) and per­haps even Sil­ver­stone (8 July) might have re­turned some fur­ther swings and round­abouts in a sea­son that will, in all like­li­hood, not be over un­til the fat lady sings in Abu Dhabi on 25 Novem­ber 2018.

So, strap your­selves in, it’s go­ing to be a thrilling ride.

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