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Return of Paul Ricard: Will Mercedes have their revenge?

French Grand Prix back on the calendar after ten years

French Grand Prix – Next stop on this year’s F1 calendar is the return of the French Grand Prix after ten years, and the return of Paul Ricard after 28 seasons.

It seems somewhat unimaginable that the French Grand Prix ever vanished in the first place, considering the long standing heritage of motor racing in the country. 2008 was the last time that Formula 1 visited, with the popular but isolated Circuit de Nevers-Magny Cours playing host to the race. While a challenging circuit with the Adelaide hairpin one of the best overtaking spots on the calendar, poor infrastructure and limited viewing for spectators meant Magny-Cours never became regarded as a classic, and there was little outcry when it was removed from circulation for 2009.

What happened at the last French Grand Prix, back in 2008?

Located just two hours away from Monaco on the south coast of France, Paul Ricard was still an unusual choice of venue for the returning French Grand Prix. Remodelled extensively under Bernie Ecclestone’s ownership since 1999, it is a fantastic testing facility. It has a sprinkler system to allow for testing of various levels of track dampness, a vast amount of layout opportunities, and it’s almost completely flat with acres upon acres of run-off. That’s all brilliant news for testing, but it’s not a track that screams out as an obvious venue for exciting racing. But, as the only other track in France apart from Magny-Cours with the required Grade 1 certification from the FIA (even Le Mans is only Grade 2), it’s off to Paul Ricard we pop.

On paper, this doesn’t look like a particularly good track for overtaking. The long Mistral straight will be punctuated by a chicane halfway down, but doesn’t look sharp enough to be a heavy braking zone. Signes, coming at the end of the next straight is a very fast right hander that’s expecting to generate over 4G throughout, but its nature will separate the cars before the next braking zone and the next section of twisty bits. The teams aren’t overly familiar with it, with just McLaren, Mercedes, Ferrari & Red Bull having carried out tyre testing here over the last few years. Tyres will play a huge role this weekend, with Pirelli bringing the Softs, SuperSofts & UltraSofts. While a step softer than the tyres used in Spain a month ago, the same construction as Barcelona is being used: 4mm shaved off the tread of the tyres in order to lower the stored temperatures within the tyres on track. This was something that completely flummoxed Ferrari at Catalunya, as they were crushed by the pace of Mercedes on race day.

An in-season test in Spain has taken place since, with everyone getting two days of track time to attempt to understand those tyres better. Ferrari ran both the usual and the more unique Spain/France spec constructions in order to figure out where they went wrong and Paul Ricard will offer us the first opportunity to see whether they have got to grips with that. However, based on the extent of Merc’s domination in Spain, it’s difficult to see how Ferrari could have completely solved their issues. Making life even more difficult for the red team this weekend is Mercedes planned roll-out of their upgraded power unit.

Mercedes
2018 Großer Preis von Kanada, Samstag – Wolfgang Wilhelm

France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do.  Toto Wolff, Mercedes

Mercedes, particularly with Lewis Hamilton, are usually very strong in Canada. This year, they were no match for Ferrari. With Toto Wolff saying their analysis afterwards allowed them to understand why they underperformed, it’s most likely this was down to running engines which had already done several races and were past their scheduled use-by date. This won’t be the case at Paul Ricard, where all six Mercedes powered cars get their new, shiny power units. Even if the upgrades themselves are only a miniscule step up, the ability to run the engines more aggressively than they were able to in Canada will mean that a full strength Mercedes should be very much in evidence this weekend. It’s right on time too, with F1 embarking on its first ever ‘Triple Header’ over the next few weekends. France this weekend is immediately followed by the Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring, with Silverstone a week later. There’s a lot of points up for grabs, and the potential for a major swing in the title chase in just a 15 day window.

“We would like to thank @RenaultSportF1 for the past 12 years, a period during which we experienced some incredible moments together. Our focus for the rest of this year is still very much on delivering the best results possible in the 2018 Championship.” Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing

The biggest news heading into this weekend is the announcement from Red Bull that they have split with long term engine partners Renault. It’s not particularly bad news for Renault themselves as they head into their home Grand Prix, as they have their own, steadily improving, factory team, but its a very public dismissal from one of F1’s powerhouses. Five years into the Hybrid V6 era, Red Bull Racing have not been assured that Renault are capable of making a power unit that can compete with Mercedes or Ferrari and have gone for a manufacturer that is, despite recent improvements, still the weakest on the grid. It’ll either prove to be a masterstroke or a disaster but, based on the confidence that Red Bull seem to have gathered from absorbing Toro Rosso’s data after the Honda upgrades for the Canadian Grand Prix, they certainly seem to have no doubt that they have made the right decision that will “allow them to fight for championships”.

Honda
Red Bull/Getty

Of course, that possibility is still there for this year. Despite Ferrari & Mercedes being quicker in Canada, Daniel Ricciardo actually edged closer to Lewis Hamilton in the points standings due to Hamilton’s early pitstop. Paul Ricard isn’t a track that demands outright power and the excellent Red Bull chassis should be well up for the task of negotiating the slower parts. Don’t discount either Max Verstappen or Ricciardo from getting right into the Mercedes/Ferrari party.

Predictions? Mercedes look lined up for this one. Engine upgrades, tyres they like, and the need to right the ship after taking a battering in Canada means I think they’ll take this one, although it could be Bottas who leads the way as he seems to enjoy freshly re-surfaced tracks. Ferrari and Red Bull will squabble to be second best and, depending on how the tyres work, it could be Red Bull who get the upper hand. It’ll be the now-usual Renault/Force India/Alonso/Leclerc fight for the low points positions.

What are your predictions? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Thomas Maher

Co-owner, Chief Editor and a journalist for FormulaSpy.com - Ireland's only accredited F1 & Formula E website. Also working in the Irish radio broadcasting industry. Donations: PayPal - paypal.me/thomasmaheronf1 ETH/ERC20 - 0x9d0b8071180AAcB0bD5f0c1d43281768C73e8763

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