Formula 1: Why Red Bull’s French Grand Prix win was so unexpected

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Formula 1 (Photo by Nicolas Tucat - Pool/Getty Images)
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Formula 1 (Photo by Nicolas Tucat - Pool/Getty Images) /

Red Bull Racing’s French Grand Prix victory bucked a trend we had seen in Formula 1 up until that point: a clear Mercedes edge on non-street circuits.

While Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took pole position for the opening race of the 2021 Formula 1 season in Bahrain, Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton were able to assume track position and hold first place in the race.

The season’s second race in Imola was somewhat of an anomaly, as it was held in wet conditions. Verstappen came out on top.

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Then in races three and four in Portimao and Barcelona, Mercedes showed their prowess in medium-speed corners, with Hamilton coming out on top in both events.

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In races five and six, Red Bull had a fundamental pace advantage around the tight and twisty streets of Monaco and Baku, but the feeling by those in the know was that Mercedes would be the team to beat in France.

However, Verstappen was on unstoppable form throughout the weekend at Circuit Paul Ricard, and he took the pole position by almost two and a half tenths of a second over the seven-time world champion. Then come the race, the Milton Keynes-based team flipped the tables on Mercedes. They perfected the same two-stop strategy that Mercedes used on them in Barcelona to take the win.

In the previous two iterations of the French Grand Prix, Hamilton won from pole position and was unchallenged. A dominant victory over Verstappen in 2018 was followed by a Mercedes 1-2 in 2019, with Hamilton leading every single lap in the latter.

It could be argued that previous races do not matter, as Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has stated.

In an interview with Channel 4, Wolff said: “I don’t think it is that significant. The last time we raced here was 2019. The two cars are completely different. They weren’t that competitive back then and they are today.”

Maybe. But considering the pace that Red Bull have shown at other medium-speed courses, this should be a worry for the Silver Arrows.

Analysis by RaceFans shows that Mercedes, at least in Hamilton’s hands, were quicker by a few tenths of a second per lap over the course of the Spanish Grand Prix.

So why did Mercedes lose out to Red Bull on a track with similar medium-speed characteristics?

It is clear that Red Bull have made a step forward since Barcelona compared to Mercedes, as they were faster in both qualifying and the race. The medium-speed final sector proved to be very strong for Verstappen throughout the whole weekend.

Additionally, the setup for Red Bull was key. They opted to run very little wing, which meant they were fast on the straights without losing much, if any, speed against Mercedes in the corners. This allowed them to have the best of both worlds.

This is quite ominous for Mercedes, as Red Bull showed great short run and long run speed. They also showed their ability to make the tires last in traffic as well as make up an entire pit stop on Hamilton in order to win the race.

In sum, Mercedes have an equal sparring partner for the first time in the V6 turbo hybrid era.

The Silver Arrows have dominated Formula 1 during this era, but as is the case in all sport, all good things come to an end at some point.

So is Verstappen’s French Grand Prix performance the one that will be crucial when looking back on the world championship battle? It could very well be so.

Now the Formula 1 circus is headed to the Red Bull Ring for two races in Austria, where Verstappen has won twice before. He will be feeling confident that he can repeat that success this year.

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Mercedes still have a decent package as they look to beat Red Bull to the championship and retain their spot as top dogs. But one thing is for sure; it will be a battle like they have not yet faced.