How much-maligned Paul Ricard produced “one of the most exciting races for five years”

2021 French Grand Prix

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Formula 1’s return to Paul Ricard did not begin well. Its first two races were, to put it kindly, not classics.

RaceFans readers rated the 2018 and 2019 French grands prix unfavourably: Scores of 6.3 and 3.4 out of 10 meant Paul Ricard ranked last among all 32 tracks which have held races since 2008 for the quality of its action.

Happily, Sunday’s race was a total departure, not only serving up action in the midfield, but a battle for the lead which hung in the balance until the penultimate lap.

Formula 1’s head of motorsport Ross Brawn raved about Sunday’s seventh round of the world championship. “It was fabulous watching the race evolve from a slow burner to humdinger,” he said. “This race was the epitome of F1 – we saw the human side and the strategy side of the sport in all its glory.”

Red Bull CEO Christian Horner was thrilled with the race as well as Max Verstappen’s win. “When you consider it was arguably the most boring race of the last five years, two years ago here, that was probably one of the most exciting races we’ve had in the last five years,” he said.

While Formula 1 didn’t race at Paul Ricard in 2020, its regulations have not changed drastically since the last race in there, so we can rule that out as a reason why we might have seen a much better event. Nor did a fortuitously-timed Safety Car appear to add drama. So why did the track produce a much more satisfying encounter last weekend?

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Soaked Sunday F3 race washed track clean of rubber
It didn’t rain during the race – it never looked likely to, the official FIA forecast never indicating more than a 20% chance. But there was a significant downpour on Sunday morning which made life interesting for the Formula 3 drivers.

It also cleaned the track of the rubber which had built up over the previous two days. That, plus much lower track temperatures, meant drivers discovered strikingly different grip levels when they took to the track for their pre-race reconnaissance laps.

Some, like Ferrari, realised they were in serious trouble. Their subsequent descent from fifth and seventh on the grid to 11th and 16th at the flag was part of the reason why we saw so much overtaking in the midfield.

It also kept teams guessing about tyre performance. What originally looked like a certain one-stop race swung towards two-stop territory. But it was close – race-winner Verstappen was one of just two drivers to pit twice. This was a strategic move to prevent Lewis Hamilton jumping ahead of him, which set up a contest which was only resolved on the penultimate lap.

Verstappen’s race-winning pass on Hamilton may have been inevitable from the moment he got within DRS range, but the chase that led up to it was pure drama.

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Closer competition

The leading cars are more closely matched than two years ago
Mercedes were widely considered the pre-race favourites. Coming off the back of two tracks they had struggled at, the return to a more conventional course was expected to play into the hands of the world champions.

This didn’t happen. Red Bull beat them in qualifying, though again it was close. Max Verstappen took pole position by a quarter of a second, but with the Mercedes pair looking strong on race pace, and Sergio Perez lining up behind them, qualifying set the race up superbly.

Previous encounters at Paul Ricard have been far more one-sided. On F1’s last visit to the track Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari was the only non-Mercedes to qualifying within a second of pole-winner Hamilton.

Track tweaks

Paul Ricard reprofiling and resurfacing, 2021
Report: Paul Ricard reprofiles corners in bid to improve racing
Daniel Ricciardo, who equalled his best result of the season with sixth place, offered another explanation for why Paul Ricard produced a better race this year.

“My answer is they re-laid the circuit, the Tarmac, and perhaps it was a little bit more aggressive and I guess some cars suffered more,” he explained. “So then you had bigger tyre deltas.”

The weather conditions also played a part, Ricciardo added. “With the wind as well [there was] lots of mistakes and sliding. So it was very easy to make a mistake. And obviously, if you’re the car that’s hunting, if you kind of keep it clean, you can really get a good slipstream.

“So that was probably the thing, just challenging conditions with some tyre deg created good racing. So I think that was really nice to see.”

The revisions to the track went beyond refreshing the surface, which had already been extensively relaid two years earlier. While the configuration of the corners was unchanged, the profile of the track was altered at several points.

Ricciardo watched F3 action with envy
In places this was done to improve drainage – note how quickly the water cleared during Sunday morning’s Formula 3 race. But the repositioning of the camber at several corners also had an effect. It was noticeable at turn five, the beginning of the acceleration zone which leads to the chicane, where several drivers locked wheels.

It may also have played a role in Verstappen’s crucial first-lap error which handed the lead to Hamilton. The Red Bull driver was caught out by a tailwind when he arrived off-line at the first corner and a twitch of oversteer sent him wide. That put him onto a section of track which now slopes away from the centre more steeply than it did two years ago, and he had to make another correction which sent him off. Yuki Tsunoda was caught out at the same corner during qualifying.

However it came about, Ricciardo was pleased F1 finally put on a good race on the third French Grand Prix since the race was reinstated to the calendar.

“I’m just happy that there [were] some battles and a fun race,” he said. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction when you’re able to battle and overtake.

Eric Boullier, Paul Ricard, 2021
Boullier enjoyed “positive vibe” after race
“I had envy, honestly, watching F3 this weekend, their races were so exciting. I really hoped we could have something like that. And I think at moments of the race it was, so I enjoyed that.”

Best of all, the gradual easing of pandemic restrictions meant there were 15,000 spectators in the stands enjoying it all. No wonder there was a smile on the race of the race’s managing director Eric Boullier afterwards.

“The target as a promoter is to have everybody leaving the track on Sunday night with a smile, but also having a smile at home for the TV spectators, obviously, and the paddock,” he said. “I guess some people are not happy today because they have not won but it’s good to feel a good, positive vibe.”

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

2021 French Grand Prix

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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30 comments on “How much-maligned Paul Ricard produced “one of the most exciting races for five years””

  1. Most of the races so far this year have been pretty good, and it’s clear that the factor that sets them apart from recent seasons is that there is actually competition at the front of the field. Several races this year have only been decided in the last few laps. This is what people will continue to switch on for.

    1. Exacly @red-andy. You just cannot really beat having real competition for the wins and the title as the basis for having interesting racing instead of knowing well before the race weekend who is probably going to be on pole and win it.

      1. RandomMallard (@)
        23rd June 2021, 16:02

        @red-andy I completely agree. I think the worst races this season have been Monaco (though we weren’t expecting much) and, despite all the hype people gave it, Portimao was a bit disappointing in the end, especially compared to some of the other races.

      2. Cars closer in performance = good exciting racing.
        We have RB and Merc really close this year. I hope the regulation changes in 2022 help to close the gap. Between teams and enable even more great racing in the coming seasons.

    2. @red-andy The fact that there is more competition at the front isn’t just better for the obvious point of not knowing who is going to win, it also means different strategies can actually cause a big enough swing to favour one team/driver over another. Most of the past 8 years Mercedes have been dominant enough that they could choose whatever strategy they wanted and still win comfortably. Now we have two teams that are close enough in performance that choosing the right strategy and executing it well can make the difference between winning and losing. When there is close competition it brings all other aspects of the sport into the spotlight – driver performance, strategy, fast pitstops, small errors or just a little bad luck are enough right now to make the difference between winning and losing – just as it should be.

      1. Indeed, not sure if majority noticed this stat, but it’s been 3 races in a row that at least a red bull jumps hamilton in the pits: perez in monaco with an overcut, both red bulls in baku, don’t remember if it was an over or undercut, and verstappen with an undercut in france, that’s highly unusual.

    3. True …. last year I watched the first 15 laps and the last 10 laps or so,

      But this year I was glued to the TV, all races were awesome so far !

  2. With all the parallel painted lines it is awful to watch on TV.

  3. Adam (@rocketpanda)
    23rd June 2021, 14:51

    The race at the front was as engaging as the race in the midfield, it’s as simple as that.

  4. Now they’ve fixed the track, can they do something about the run offs to reduce the chance of getting an aneurism whilst watching it on the telly?

  5. “There’s actually a competition now.”

    All it is, innit? I know it’s been a while, but all sports need actual stakes. One team winning by default the majority of the races unthreatened makes both relatively poor tracks like Paul Ricard, but also exciting tracks like Spa feel like forgettable affairs. This year we’re seeing the opposite and it makes every race worthwhile.

    1. petebaldwin (@)
      23rd June 2021, 15:16

      Simple isn’t it? This race wasn’t full of crazy battles on track or unexpected things like rain or safety cars. It was just a simple race for the win between two different teams. When you have that, F1 is exciting.

  6. I didn’t find the first two editions since the circuit’s 2018 return boring either, but the most recent one is most certainly the best thus far. Races this season have generally been decent, and I’m confident this trend will continue until the end, even if some tracks are less racing/overtaking-friendly than others.

    1. I think the 2nd edition was absolutely horrible when it comes to on track action except the last few laps, basically similar to monaco 2021 but in monaco you already know there generally won’t be overtakes, the first edition was more interesting with vettel and bottas recovering from the back.

    2. I hope you are right about the trend. I think the next four races before the summer break should be pretty close, and then we will see which team can out develop the others.

  7. Broccoliface
    23rd June 2021, 17:02

    It was still -despite- the track, and not -because- of it, though

  8. Personally, I believe the rain showers that cleaned the existing rubber from the track was probably more significant that changes to the track or surface.
    I remember the same thing happening in Montreal years ago (10? 15?)… bright and sunny all three days, but late Saturday and overnight, there were heavy thunderstorms, but everything dried up by Sunday morning. The drivers were unprepared for the lack of grip and increased wear.

  9. When the rules are stable it allows the rest of the field to catch up and racing becomes closer. It’s not rocket science. Eras of technical stability result in closer championships. Get ready for another 3-4 years of singular dominance with the 2022 cars!

    1. At least the engine regs will be frozen until 2025, so there should be some scope for balance.

    2. RandomMallard (@)
      23rd June 2021, 22:28

      Like the relatively close 2005-2008 seasons after 5 years for Ferrari dominance?

    3. Such an obvious point that to omit it in the analysis is more than surprising:

      regulations have not changed drastically since the last race in there, so we can rule that out as a reason why we might have seen a much better event.

  10. Competition and almost certain two of F1’s future GOATs. Not sure it will last but two teams so close together that the driver can make a difference.

  11. Robert McKay
    23rd June 2021, 20:46

    It was a decent race, primarily because of the strategic variations that took the entire race to unwind and that the big two teams were closely matched and had both drivers in the fight, but it wasn’t “one of the best races for 5 years”.

  12. There’s one thing which really leads boring race anywhere. 2019 French Grand Prix was much related to that and I can also raise 2020 Belgian Grand Prix with a similar issue. I mentioned Spa here because F1 fans traditionally love Spa.

    The thing is: there were not much drivers who were faster than car(s) ahead.

    1. I guess qualifying usually makes that the case in the race.

  13. One of the factors was probably that all the racing was clean. No one crashed no one had to make an extra pitstop and be out of contention and no one had any mechanical issues. All 20 cars were there or there abouts so racing was a statistical inevitability with tire wear effecting cars differently.

  14. It was a pretty good straight-forward race, but I don’t think it was one of the “most exciting races of the last five years.” Heck, it wasn’t the even the most exciting race so far this season. Christian Horner might be slightly biased in his assessment, rose coloured tear-offs and all that.

    1. Suppose that could be imola, rain is a good bonus.

  15. It all depends on which driver or team you support f.i. RB or Ferrari. The neutral Race fan must have liked it, no one knew how it would end until the last lap. Curious about Pirelli’s staying in one piece.

  16. Lopes da Silva
    24th June 2021, 14:53

    Once again we realise that the track layout has nothing to do with the lack of entertainment, Tilke’s design has nothing to do with the lack of entertainment.

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