F1 news 2020 - Race Review: Mercedes have a real problem, Red Bull are getting everything right
After a thrilling race at Paul Ricard (who expected that?!) Pete Sharland looks at a real tactical masterclass from Red Bull as Max Verstappen moved 12 points clear at the top of the drivers’ standings. Elsewhere there are real questions for Mercedes after they made some really poor decisions once more.
They could hear you Max, for about the first time of the entire Grand Prix as radio problems plagued Red Bull throughout Sunday’s French Grand Prix. But in the end, it didn’t matter.
What a way to start a hat-trick of races, by securing your very own hat-trick. This is the first time in the hybrid era that Red Bull have won three races in a row. If Mercedes didn’t know before they are in a real title fight.
Let’s start with the race winner, we’ll get to Mercedes in a bit. Ironically it was a terrible start for the pole-sitter Verstappen as he locked up and lost the car during the first lap and lost position immediately to Lewis Hamilton.
Credit to Red Bull and Verstappen, they didn’t panic, waiting to see how the race panned out during the opening laps, and it’s safe to say that it unfolded in a way none of us expected, with the tyres degrading far quicker. Drivers began to raise the possibility of two-stop races, or at least stopping earlier than expected, and it was McLaren who moved first, with Red Bull not too far behind.
The move was brilliant as bringing in Verstappen caught Mercedes off guard. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has looked like a rabid dog at times this season - he’s been so aggressive and this was another smart roll of the dice.
And it was also incredibly smart to keep Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez out there and continue with the plan for the one-stop race. Fresh off winning the last race Perez did his job to perfection, making life extremely difficult for the two Mercedes. It speaks volumes that their first three in a row comes in his first season. Giving Verstappen a team-mate like Perez is already paying off big time and it looks like it will continue to do so.
Such was Perez’s confidence that he felt with another few laps he could have taken second from Hamilton. While we’ll never know that, what we do know is that his management of the tyres was critical in the race win for today, a real masterclass in that discipline.
With that let’s move onto Mercedes shall we?
This is not the first time that Red Bull have outsmarted Mercedes and unless they pull their fingers out it will not be the last.
The radio messaging from Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas midway through the race was clear, the tyres were not going to last until the end. At that stage Mercedes had to roll the dice, they had to take a chance having already been undercut once. That they then let it happen again is unacceptable.
Speaking after the race with Sky Sports, F1 former world champion and Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg said: "Valtteri did a rubbish job in defending. Max had such an easy time getting past."
Rosberg is technically not wrong but it’s hard to be too harsh on Bottas when he was clearly being ignored by his team. The Finn was one of the first to suggest a possible two-stop and on the radio as he was passed by Verstappen he was raging.
"Why the f*** did nobody listen to me when I said it was a two-stopper?"
Bottas was silent on the radio at the finish line and speaking in the paddock afterwards he doubled down on his belief that there needed to a two-stop strategy.
Valtteri Bottas kritisierte sein Mercedes-Team in Frankreich
Image credit: Getty Images
As for Hamilton he did an excellent job in a tricky situation. It was extremely interesting to hear him say on his radio that he had warned about the race pace during the morning meeting. What was surprising was to hear Rosberg slam Hamilton after the race for failing to stop Verstappen overtaking him:
“Unusual from Lewis. Close the damn door! No?
“[He] usually looks like the best one to one racers and I’m surprised that he didn’t at least try and brake late and try and keep the outside, so a bit soft there from Lewis.
“I mean it’s such a boost and they’re really becoming the dominant force more and more. It’s putting so much pressure on Mercedes and we’re seeing that Mercedes is making mistake after mistake.
“So they need to be careful, and they need to keep it together from now on to have a chance.”
Max Verstappen (Red Bull) gewinnt in Le Castellet
Image credit: Getty Images
Once again Rosberg seems too quick to twist the knife into his old team. In reality Hamilton did about as well as he could given how shot his tyres were. It doesn’t feel as if there was too much more the Brit could do, in many ways he saved the team’s blushes with his driving. Were it not for his skill it could have been a Red Bull one-two.
Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles admitted on radio to Hamilton that, “This one is on us”. But simple apologies aren’t enough, it’s imperative that Mercedes figure out what is going wrong.
Six weeks ago this column was lauding Vowles, Toto Wolff and Peter Bonnington after a superbly executed strategy in Spain. Since then there have been multiple errors, first at Monaco and then in Baku. This is no longer a blip, it’s something more serious. Mercedes are under pressure for the first time in years, and they are not responding well.
Let’s have a word for McLaren as well, who were very much the best of the rest and are eyeing that third place in the constructors’ championship. Lando Norris was again brilliant but it was the performance of Daniel Ricciardo that really stood out. The Australian was the first brought in with the aggressive undercut policy and it resulted in possibly his best race of the season.
The fire was back too, hearing Ricciardo shout “Let’s f****** go!” was great after so many difficult races. It was a terrible day for Ferrari but the battle between those two as well as Alpha Tauri is getting very exciting. Ferrari need to step up, particularly after Charles Leclerc said it was “one of the most difficult races in my time in Formula 1.”
And don’t discount Aston Martin, more points for Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel, with the young Canadian making up nine places from his starting spot. Fernando Alonso too, put in a great performance in what looked like a very difficult car to drive.
We now have the double-header coming in Austria and even though it is Red Bull’s home race it should be another tight race even though they are favourites. Like Verstappen said, “As you could see, the whole race we were fighting each other so I think it will be like this for the rest of the season.” Let’s hope for more of the same.