Max Verstappen took a major step towards a second successive Formula 1 title with victory in the French Grand Prix as Ferrari and Charles Leclerc had yet another day to forget.
Here are our conclusions from Paul Ricard…
One giant step closer to a second title for Verstappen
Consecutive wins for Ferrari at Silverstone and Spielberg had made these crucial weeks in the 2022 World Championship.
Another victory or two for Leclerc prior to the summer break and the title race would be well and truly back on; instead, with Verstappen claiming his seventh win in 12 races, it may already be time to declare this fight over.
Good stuff!!! 💪
I’m definitely very happy to win this one and to pick up more good points 👊
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) July 24, 2022
F1’s two leading teams had come to Le Castellet with very different angles of attack, Red Bull relying on their enormous top speed while Ferrari favoured high downforce, which proved good enough for Leclerc to claim his seventh pole position of 2022.
There were signs early in the race – as Verstappen ran close behind Leclerc but, unable to pass, found himself hurting his own tyres – of Red Bull falling into the trap set by Ferrari, whom many had expected to quickly fade in the extreme heat.
How would it have played out had Leclerc not crashed out at the horseshoe corner on Lap 18? Who’s to say and, frankly, what does it really matter now?
As in Barcelona and Baku, Leclerc’s sudden demise instantly drained the intrigue from the fight at the front, leaving Verstappen with yet another untroubled path to victory.
Now with a lead of 63 points, nobody is catching him from here.
The hard truth? Leclerc and Ferrari aren’t ready to win just yet
So effortless has Leclerc been since he first sat in a Formula 1 car that it is sometimes easy to forget how relatively young and inexperienced he still is.
Halfway through his fifth full season, he is at exactly the same stage of his career as Verstappen was in 2019 – capable of glorious highs that point to a spectacular future but still slightly lacking the temperament and maturity for those peaks to become standard.
Verstappen’s greatest achievement during his title-winning 2021 campaign was finally eradicating the sense of jeopardy in the air – the feeling that trouble was only ever around the corner – whenever he was in front.
It is that crucial final step that Leclerc – his talent still untamed, his edges still slightly too rough – is yet to take. Comparisons with Gilles Villeneuve will never cease to flatter but hint at a lack of refinement.
In a year of outstanding performances for the number 16 Ferrari, France seemed set to be one of Leclerc’s best as he converted pole – only slightly assisted by a slipstream from team-mate Carlos Sainz – into an early lead and repelled Verstappen’s attacks.
Yet, much like his spin at Imola, his race-ending crash was a sign that, for all their potential, 2022 has come slightly too early in the development of both team and driver.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 24, 2022
Leclerc had been fiercely critical of Ferrari for throwing away crucial points in Barcelona, Monaco, Baku and Silverstone in recent months, but this was a day for Charles himself – still the most self-critical driver on the grid – to take a long look in the mirror.
Ferrari aren’t perfect, no, but neither is he.
Not yet anyway…
What could’ve been for Carlos Sainz
Facing a grid penalty in France following his engine failure in Austria, Sainz picked Q2 as the moment to make his point.
With a lap of 1:31.081, Sainz set a time more than nine tenths faster than Verstappen’s previous benchmark and two tenths quicker than Leclerc, as though to prove he would’ve had the pace to be a contender in normal circumstances.
By his own admission Sainz had struggled to get to grips with the F1-75 at the start of the season but, still carrying the glow from his first grand prix win at Silverstone earlier this month, is increasingly at one with the car and produced his most complete performance of 2022 in France.
His tentative opening lap was reminiscent of his steady Ferrari debut in Bahrain last year, Sainz’s reluctance to get dragged into someone else’s accident setting him up for a fine recovery drive from 19th.
He may have been fortunate to get away with the most unsafe of unsafe releases with only a five-second penalty, but Sainz was responsible for arguably the highlight of the race with an inch-perfect pass around the outside of George Russell at Signes.
It was just after seemingly completing his recovery to third with a move on Sergio Perez, however, that Sainz’s race took a turn for the worse, Ferrari – having first ordered him to box in the midst of his battle with Perez – pitting him from third just 11 laps from the finish.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) July 24, 2022
There is a temptation to lambast Ferrari at times like this but Sainz had been carrying a nasty blister on the front-right of a set of mediums he had carried from Lap 18. Nevertheless, the call could have come much earlier to afford him the time to work his way back up the order.
He would finish only a distant fifth, but Sainz deserved better.
Perez needs to wake up
It is remarkable to think it is only two months ago, following his victory in Monaco, that Perez was considered a potential title contender in some quarters.
He may have complained that Red Bull’s development has swung away from him but, on the evidence of his performances in recent weeks, a cynic might suggest he has eased off after securing a new contract.
Beaten at his own game of tyre management by Verstappen in Baku, Perez crashed out of qualifying in Canada before suffering damage in a first-lap collision at Silverstone.
If he recovered well to finish P2 in Britain, he was not so fortunate after another opening-lap incident in Austria for which Russell was penalised but Perez inexplicably placed his car in the same compromising position as he did against Lando Norris in the 2021 race.
P3 on the grid would normally be considered the bare minimum on a weekend Sainz was out of contention but was seen as a good recovery after Perez had shown no pace at all in practice at Paul Ricard.
Team principal Christian Horner’s post-session verdict that Perez “turned up today” following an anonymous Friday was utterly damning.
He was asleep at the wheel once more in the race, Perez unable to use Red Bull’s straight-line advantage to find a way past Lewis Hamilton before being ambushed by Russell for third just four laps from the finish.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) July 24, 2022
It was only at that point that Perez woke up, but by then it was too late. What should have been a routine podium was gone.
It was a performance reminiscent of Mercedes-era Valtteri Bottas on a bad day.
Where do Mercedes go from here?
Mercedes may have got two cars on the podium for the first time this season in France, but there was a tinge of disappointment in the air for team boss Toto Wolff.
With the circuit sharing similarities with Barcelona and Silverstone it was hoped the W13 would replicate its strongest performances of 2022 at Paul Ricard to potentially launch Mercedes into victory contention, but Hamilton was ultimately almost a second adrift of pole position.
They might sit only 44 points behind Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship, but none of Mercedes’ nine podiums so far this year have been achieved on pure pace and without quicker cars running into trouble.
How you view where Mercedes currently stand depends largely on your perspective and, for his part, Russell remains convinced they are “on the right path.”
Hamilton, with four consecutive podium finishes, echoed his team-mate’s thoughts, clinging to the hope that everything will just click one weekend “and we’ll be right there.”
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 24, 2022
But what if that eureka moment never arrives? Even on the weekend of their so-called breakthrough performance in Spain in May, the fastest Mercedes in qualifying was still six tenths off pole.
A clear pattern of progress and performance with upgrades delivering as anticipated, not just a streak of podiums earned through well-executed weekends, would make it much easier for Mercedes to commit to the no-sidepod design for the long term.
Yet at a time their customers teams, Aston Martin and Williams, have both abandoned their own unusual concepts to follow the Red Bull philosophy, surely there must be a temptation within Mercedes to bite the bullet and do the same.
Highlights from the French Grand Prix
Did Max Verstappen win the French Grand Prix, or did Ferrari and Charles Leclerc throw it away? Probably a bit of both.