Red Bull’s Revenge


Red Bull driver Max Verstappen executed a flawless strategy as he won the French Grand Prix (courtesy of Twitter)

On Sunday, Formula 1 kicked off its first tripleheader of the season at Circuit Paul Ricard for the French Grand Prix. After the street circuits of Monaco and Azerbaijan, many expected the reigning champions Mercedes to bounce back at a track they have dominated after it returned to the calendar in 2018. Mercedes has gotten pole position and won each race in France since. The reigning champion, Lewis Hamilton, led 105 out of the 106 laps coming into this edition of the grand prix.

Mercedes lived up to expectations during practice, showing their pace when on a traditional circuit. In fact, Hamilton’s teammate Valteri Bottas was the quickest Mercedes during the practice sessions. However, current championship leaders Red Bull showed that they also have pace, with driver championship leader Max Verstappen showing impressive speed.

Another close battle between the championship rivals followed in qualifying, with Verstappen getting pole position ahead of Hamilton and then Bottas. Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez qualified in fourth. Christian Horner, team principal for Red Bull, stated that if “we can beat Mercedes here, we can beat them anywhere”

When the lights went out, Verstappen got away cleanly in front of Hamilton but as they approached the first turn, the pole sitter went too deep and off the track, gifting Hamilton the lead. Verstappen got back on and stayed in second. Hamilton was now leading in front of Verstappen, then Bottas and Perez in fourth. The front three started to split from the rest of the pack, but still remained in touch with each other. Then on lap 17, the race turned on its head. Mercedes opted to pit Bottas due to vibrations on the tires. Red Bull immediately responded by pitting Verstappen. However, Mercedes did not pit Hamilton alongside Verstappen. Hamilton stayed out and then pitted on the lap after Verstappen. 

One important thing to note in strategies is the overcut and undercut. The undercut is when a car pits early and gets fresh tires in an attempt to overtake the car in front. When the other car finally pits, the tire difference in those laps is big enough to leapfrog the car in front.

Before Hamilton pitted, he had a three-second gap to Verstappen, which is a pretty safe gap in terms of protecting against the undercut. However, Verstappen did an almighty outlap and when Hamilton emerged from the pits, he narrowly got ahead, regaining the position that he lost at the start. 

At this point, Perez was in the lead since he did not enter the pits. This was intentional, with Perez going long on his opening set of tires so that after his pit stop, he could potentially gain a position over the Mercedes. Verstappen was now in second ahead of Hamilton and Bottas. As the race progressed, those three drivers were on their radios saying that the new tires would not make it to the end, instead asking their engineers if they should switch to a two-stop strategy.

After Perez pitted, Verstappen was now leading in front of Hamilton and Bottas. This was essentially the same scenario as this year’s Spanish Grand Prix. Verstappen was leading Hamilton throughout the race. However, Mercedes made the bold choice to pit Hamilton and with fresher tires, he caught and passed Verstappen for the win. 

The only difference was that Perez was now in the mix for Red Bull. If Mercedes wanted to repeat what happened in Spain, they also had to overtake Perez. And with Perez on fresher tires than them, it looked like a difficult strategy to execute. It was now a game of chicken, waiting to see which team would pull the trigger. Red Bull had track position but the events of Barcelona were still fresh in their minds.

On lap 33, Red Bull decided to pit Verstappen again, forfeiting the lead and emerging in fourth behind Perez. This put Mercedes in a massive bind. If they pitted either Hamilton or Bottas, the undercut would still keep them behind Verstappen. In addition to that, even though they would gain on Perez, it would be hard for them to overtake. Verstappen would be let through and Perez would be used as a blocker to create an even bigger gap to Verstappen. Both Red Bulls were now on fresher or even faster tire compounds as well, and Mercedes ran the risk of running out of tires at the end of the race, making it impossible to defend the position against either Verstappen or Perez. They decided to keep out both Hamilton and Bottas. 

Now on significantly faster tires, Verstappen had to claw back from a 20 second gap. Verstappen was lightning quick, at one point gaining two seconds per lap on race leader Hamilton. Perez let Verstappen pass, due to their different strategies. Verstappen continued his charge, eventually catching up to Bottas on lap 44 and passing him due to Bottas’ braking mistake. The gap was now five seconds with nine laps left. 

Hamilton made his tires last but it was not enough. On the penultimate lap, Verstappen breezed by Hamilton to take the lead. After 53 laps, Verstappen ended Mercedes’ dominance at Paul Ricard and won the French Grand Prix. Hamilton finished second and Perez passed Bottas to claim the final podium place. During and especially after the race, Bottas was livid as he heavily pushed for a second stop. On the radio, he yelled at his engineer “Why the **** does no one listen to me when I say it’s going to be a two-stopper.”

This was Red Bull’s payback from Spain. They used the same strategy and caught Mercedes. Perez became the main difference as Red Bull used him as a buffer and deterrent for anything that Mercedes could have done. This was Red Bull’s third win in a row, the first time that they have done so since the turbo-hybrid era. Red Bull increased their leads in the driver’s and constructors standings, located here

.This was a key victory for Red Bull because not only do they have the momentum in this triple header, but the next two races are in Austria at the Red Bull Ring, where they have gotten great results. Red Bull are giving Mercedes an intense title battle this season. Perez is clearly a support driver for Verstappen, but unlike previous years, Perez has been able to perform and pick up the pieces when Verstappen gets in trouble as shown in Azerbaijan. Without Perez in that position, Mercedes probably would have won with a repeat of Spain. This highlights how critical it is to have two capable drivers. 

Mercedes need to pick themselves up quickly if they want to retain their titles. Since Monaco, Mercedes have dropped the ball due to pitstop, driver and strategy mistakes. This hat trick of Red Bull victories is the first time since 2019 that Hamilton has not won a grand prix in three races. In a tight season, every point counts and can be the difference between winning or losing.

The next race is this weekend at the Red Bull Ring for the Steiermark Grand Prix. If these first seven races have shown anything, it should be another fantastic battle in a season that is the best I have seen in a long time.