After Mercedes’ Monaco and Baku problems, Paul Ricard was tipped to be the track where Formula 1’s champion team stretched its legs and restored its superiority.
But instead it’s Max Verstappen’s Red Bull on French Grand Prix pole by a healthy 0.258s.
Does this mean we should now see Red Bull as F1’s pacesetter, and therefore title favourite? Or would that be a wildly premature conclusion to draw?
Our writers have their say.
This is why Mercedes couldn’t just blame street tracks
Life looks a little easier for the Verstappen/Red Bull combination and that’s what I think might be making the difference.
It’s clear both packages are very close at their peak but it just feels like Verstappen can reach the limit in a broader set of conditions.
It’s why Mercedes couldn’t just blame street tracks for its recent slump in form. The team admitted it was operating below a title-winning standard recently and now we see why it was so costly. Simply banking on a return to ‘conventional’ circuits isn’t enough to return to the top and Mercedes isn’t arrogant enough to think so.
There are some limitations in the Mercedes package still and we know there is also a slight deficit on the pitstop side. And again we’ve seen how quick the Red Bull is in normal conditions.
So, even if it’s only by a tiny margin, Mercedes is currently the underdog in this fight.
It’s nudging towards Red Bull
While the battle between Red Bull and Mercedes is still close enough to be within the vagaries of track performance sensitivities, the fact Verstappen and Red Bull had a handy qualifying advantage here does nudge the dial a little more in their favour.
Paul Ricard was expected to be a happier hunting ground for Mercedes than for Red Bull, so it’s significant that Verstappen took pole, although what has yet to become clear is whether the tightening up of tyre pressure monitoring has played a part in that.
We also have to wait and see how things play out in the race, as if Mercedes can come on strongly in the race then again that will add data to our ‘live’ model of the performance.
This also represents a return to qualifying form for Verstappen, not only in terms of getting pole position but also the fact he delivered on his first Q3 run – something that he hasn’t done to the level he’d expect of himself since Bahrain.
What we can’t say with certainty is that this is the shape of things to come, although for any who were sceptical it confirms Verstappen and Red Bull are absolutely capable of fighting for and winning the title. But that we already knew from the first six races.
The key thing is Red Bull’s rate of progress
Two years ago at Paul Ricard, Mercedes locked out the front row. Hamilton was on pole position with 1m28.319s, Red Bull with Verstappen (pictured above) was fourth with a 1m29.409s. That’s a deficit of 1.09s.
This year, Red Bull with Verstappen stole the pole with a 1m29.990s, Hamilton was second with a 1m30.248s. That’s a deficit of 0.258s, or overall a swing around of 1.348s.
No matter where it has come from, in terms it being the Red Bull side or the Honda side, that is a massive change. It is probably a bit of both but don’t underestimate the amount that Verstappen has been able to add to that performance improvement. He is just getting into his swing and when it matters he has shown that he can dig pretty deep and make it count.
Performance-wise, it’s still a bit too close to say which team has the upper hand. At face value, it looks like Red Bull but it is still nip and tuck and on any given day either Red Bull or Mercedes could have it.
However, that is only relative performance pace and you don’t get any points for that. As we know so well, the race can be a whole different story but I think tomorrow’s will be a close battle.
It’s fun that this might delay 2022 prep
On the average F1 track, is the RB16B a better package right now than the W12? I don’t have the faintest idea – but I’d like to believe that neither do Red Bull and Mercedes.
Because, in that case, neither will be able to completely stop work on their 2021 cars, and that should theoretically have a knock-on effect on 2022, therefore allowing the rest of the field to get closer.
You can argue that McLaren and Ferrari are kind of in the same boat, but a third place is absolutely not the same as a title. And if the 2022 rules really are a game-changer, both Mercedes and Red Bull might see this as the only title push that they can be absolutely sure of in the near future.
Yes, the development plans go far enough in advance to not be fully dictated by week-in, week-out results, and yes, Mercedes and Red Bull are two operations that are too good to be thrown into disarray by a close title campaign, which isn’t a novelty to either.
But wouldn’t it be lovely if this somehow gave the rest of the field at least a minor advantage heading into F1’s brave new world?
Mercedes might still have the race edge
Verstappen’s pole position will give Red Bull the belief it now has the outright fastest car on the grid, especially when Mercedes has performed so well here over in the past. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that is the case.
Although Verstappen clearly had an advantage on the soft tyres, Mercedes still seemed to be quicker on the mediums and also appeared to be faster on the long runs. So, it’s not yet possible to say that Red Bull is the outright favourite.
Mercedes might be on the backfoot right now, but I don’t believe it will be behind for long and I can’t see it not having the fastest car again at some point this year.
For the first time in years, there’s a proper title fight with no clear frontrunner and that we can expect to last right down to the wire.
Red Bull’s actually been fastest for a while
You could argue that since as long ago as pre-season testing, Red Bull and Verstappen have had the strongest package – they’ve just not been able to use it.
From Verstappen throwing away the win in Bahrain with his ill-positioned overtake on Hamilton, to a Mercedes strategical masterclass in Spain and a red-flagged qualifying session in Baku, Red Bull and Verstappen have not secured the wins and pole positions that they should have.
French GP qualifying was a much simpler, straighter fight on a circuit that Mercedes has thrived at previously, and Red Bull and Verstappen walked it. It simply solidifies what has been suspected for some time – Red Bull has developed a faster car than Mercedes.
And now it’s beginning to use it.
Don’t overestimate the significance of one-lap pace
It’s looking that Red Bull is quickest at the moment but we need to be cautious about being too definitive, as just the smallest details can swing things.
If tomorrow’s challenge is about tyre blistering for example, that’s going to be a far more dominant factor than which car is a couple of tenths faster than another one in qualifying.
The cars and tyres are so incredibly sensitive this year, and the two cars matched closely enough, that I’d still be uncomfortable calling it.