Gusting winds, tyre tactics and punishing kerbs to shape French GP qualifying

2021 French Grand Prix Friday practice analysis

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Monaco and Baku shook up the competitive order in F1, but Mercedes and Red Bull were back to comfortably leading the times during Friday practice as the series returned to a permanent circuit.

But they and their rivals face a challenging combination of changing conditions, punishing kerbs and tyre choices that may not be as straightforward as they seem at Paul Ricard.

Weather problems

Many drivers raised the same two problems after Friday’s running: the track temperature was high and the wind was both strong and unpredictable.

Track temperatures during the first practice session peaked at 44.8C and hit 48.4C during second practice. That’s cooler than during the equivalent sessions in 2019 and in fact, a degree less than in Baku a fortnight ago, but seems to be causing more of an issue at Paul Ricard.

“It’s pretty hot out there, for sure,” said Lance Stroll. He was one of many drivers who also cited the gusty winds as an added complication.

Carlos Sainz Jnr was among those who were caught out during first practice. Unlike Sebastian Vettel, who also went off, the Ferrari driver managed to avoid the wall. But he ruined a set of soft tyres, limiting his qualifying simulation running.

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Paul Ricard, 2021
The wind caught Sainz out in first practice
“The problem is that the wind is blowing in the worst possible direction for the circuit, which means you have a headwind in all the straights,” said Sainz. “So you’re slow in the straights and then you have a tailwind in all the corners. So it makes it challenging.

“It makes it slower also compared to 2019, when we had the opposite wind and it makes it quite inconsistent and to risk mistakes. But it’s the same for everyone so hopefully we can adapt better.”

The wind is expected to ease in time for qualifying, and overall temperatures should be lower.

An unhappy medium

Pirelli have brought the C2, C3 and C4 compounds to Paul Ricard – one step harder than the compounds used at Monaco and Baku, which Mercedes, in particular, struggled to find a working window for.

In first practice, the top three times (Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen) were all set on soft tyres. In second practice Bottas’ best time, which was just 0.008 seconds off the quickest of the day set by Verstappen, was set on medium tyres.

Hamilton wasn’t happy with any of the tyres
Verstappen and Hamilton set their best times on soft tyres but if Mercedes can replicate the pace Bottas found on medium tyres in Q2, they could start the race on a compound they seem to prefer.

In 2019, the top eight drivers in qualifying selected the medium tyres in Q2. Expect it to be a popular choice again tomorrow, though after practice Hamilton said all the tyres “feel pretty bad” after the latest increase in pressures.

“I think the hard is probably the the better-feeling one, because it seems quite heavy-duty with the temperatures here. The softer you go, the worse it feels. So I would imagine the hard is going to be the one that most people can’t wait to get onto. But I’m not really quite sure which tyre is quickest.

“The soft tyre seems to run out halfway through the lap and then the medium tyre I think is a little bit more resilient, but doesn’t give you a huge amount of grip. So we shall see.”

Ferrari were well shy of the top 10 during first practice, then found considerable pace on the soft tyres, as they did in Baku. Sainz said that for them, it’s the medium compound – which Mercedes prefer – which they can’t make work.

“Today, actually for us [the medium] wasn’t a very good tyre,” he explained. “We felt really at home on the hard and in the soft, but the medium for some reason that I still don’t understand and I don’t think we will ever understand, it’s not a very good tyre.”

That’s bad news for Ferrari – and, to be fair, almost all the teams that aren’t Mercedes – because they only have one set of hard tyres left and two medium sets. Combined with six softs, that means they probably have to use the medium compounds, which aren’t working for them, in final practice in order to save their hard tyres for the race.

Risk and reward

Report: F1 teams want alternative to kerbs which can “destroy a car”
Coming from two races at street circuits where an error has an obvious consequence, drivers and teams might have expected Paul Ricard to be considerably more lenient.

However, the yellow kerbs just outside turn two have proven particularly controversial, with team managers from Mercedes and Red Bull contacting race control during practice sessions to emphasise how costly they were in terms of car damage.

Damage is one thing – lost running is, during a qualifying session – another. Running over the kerb in first practice damaged the floor of Verstappen’s car, forcing him into the garage for nearly ten minutes for checks and repairs. In free practice, that doesn’t necessarily matter but in Q2 or Q3 you could find yourself in serious trouble.

Among the drivers who clouted the kerbs were Pierre Gasly of AlphaTauri. “We sustained some damage to the floor of Pierre’s car after running wide in [turn two],” chief race engineer Jonathan Eddolls explained.

Mercedes and Red Bull complained about it most vociferously, partly because they are the teams that are pushing for pole and also because they will be close to the budget cap level. Drivers acknowledged they aren’t facing the problem on high-fuel runs but it could be a real Saturday hazard.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Combined practice times

PosDriverCarFP1FP2Total laps
1Max VerstappenRed Bull-Honda1’33.8801’32.87244
2Valtteri BottasMercedes1’33.4481’32.88050
3Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’33.7831’33.12544
4Fernando AlonsoAlpine-Renault1’34.6931’33.34046
5Charles LeclercFerrari1’34.9501’33.55047
6Esteban OconAlpine-Renault1’34.3291’33.68548
7Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri-Honda1’34.6991’33.69645
8Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’35.3421’33.69847
9Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’35.1351’33.78646
10Lando NorrisMcLaren-Mercedes1’34.7071’33.82245
11Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo-Ferrari1’35.1161’33.83146
12Sergio PerezRed Bull-Honda1’34.1931’33.92149
13Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri-Honda1’34.8471’33.95547
14Daniel RicciardoMcLaren-Mercedes1’34.6441’34.07947
15Sebastian VettelAston Martin-Mercedes1’35.2891’34.44741
16Lance StrollAston Martin-Mercedes1’35.2751’34.63247
17George RussellWilliams-Mercedes1’35.26625
18Nicholas LatifiWilliams-Mercedes1’35.6121’35.33147
19Mick SchumacherHaas-Ferrari1’37.3291’35.51238
20Nikita MazepinHaas-Ferrari1’36.6511’35.55147
21Roy NissanyWilliams-Mercedes1’37.88116

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2021 French Grand Prix

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Author information

Hazel Southwell
Hazel is a freelance journalist who roams the paddocks of Formula E, covering the technical and emotional elements of electric racing. Usually found at...

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5 comments on “Gusting winds, tyre tactics and punishing kerbs to shape French GP qualifying”

  1. So who was fastest on the long runs?

    1. Bottas was considerably faster later on the simulations. I am not sure on what tyre his run was on though. Then it’s the Red Bulls and Hamilton. I don’t expect to see S tyres at the start of the race though for the front runners.

      1. Bottas was also on Mediums, but had less fuel than Hamilton and Verstappen at that time, because he started his long runs on Softs.

  2. Alpine unaffected by wind again. A handy characteristic…

    1. They seem to be fairly competitive here, but more over a single lap than in longer runs.
      They are running less downforce compared to their rivals, which might help them in qualifying, but could hurt them in the race (just like it did at Barcelona).

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