Red Bull's double threat, Sainz on a charge, and Norris in the mix – What To Watch For in the French GP
From another mouthwatering front row to Carlos Sainz starting at the back, and from McLaren splitting the Mercedes pair to Haas looking to fight forward, Chris Medland picks out some of the potentially crucial areas to keep an eye on at the Circuit Paul Ricard...
1. Leclerc and Verstappen at it again
In Austria we were able to look forward to another instalment of the battle between the two main title contenders, and they certainly delivered as Charles Leclerc overtook Max Verstappen three times in the race to secure his first victory since Australia.
READ MORE: Sainz tows Leclerc to first French Grand Prix pole as Verstappen qualifies second
Now the shoe is on the other foot, with Leclerc securing pole position at Paul Ricard and Verstappen joining him on the front row.
There are a few curveballs to throw into the mix this weekend, though, as only one of the two Ferraris – who have looked rapid throughout Saturday – are starting at the sharp end. That means Leclerc is going to be fighting against a double threat in the form of Verstappen and third-placed Sergio Perez.
At least, we expect him to be. Red Bull’s true race pace has been masked by a few issues during FP2 on Friday afternoon, when their two cars had the lowest two lap totals of the whole field and Verstappen admitted he didn’t get a good read on the tyres due to shorter stint lengths.
Red Bull tend to be strong in race trim and will have learned lessons from Austria where Ferrari had the upper hand, but either way we look set for another tight battle at the the front.
2. Sainz from the back
In a case of deja vu, after a painful retirement for a Ferrari driver in the last race, comes further pain in the form of a grid penalty this time around.
While it was Charles Leclerc stopping when in the lead in Baku, followed by a grid penalty in Canada, this time it’s Carlos Sainz who saw what looked set to be a second place in Austria ended by a spectacular fiery failure, and a power unit change coming this weekend.
READ MORE: Pole-sitter Leclerc hails 'amazing' Ferrari teamwork as fired-up Sainz eyes recovery from the back in France
Sainz has been quick, too, with the Spaniard setting the pace in FP2 and finishing final practice in third place, before ensuring he will start ahead of Kevin Magnussen in the race. That’s a good thing when it comes to his hopes of fighting through the field on Sunday, but as Leclerc found in Montreal, it gets tougher the further you climb, and he was limited to fifth place on that occasion despite a late Safety Car period.
The top six will be Sainz’s target and he’ll have to do plenty of overtaking to get there, which is an exciting prospect for all of us watching.
3. McLaren mixing it with Mercedes
When the teams released their upgrade lists on Friday morning, it was McLaren that jumped out with the highest number of different areas they were bringing new components for. And they needed the updates, after seeing Alpine move level on points with them at the last race in Austria.
Friday was promising but there was still no certainty where it would put McLaren in the pecking order, so Q3 was something of a surprise.
READ MORE: Norris delighted to split Mercedes for P5 in qualifying but anticipates 'tough race' in France
After Daniel Ricciardo missed out on a spot in the top 10 by less than 0.1s (although he will start in ninth place due to other grid penalties), Lando Norris managed to split the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell to secure fifth spot.
Norris was competitive alongside the two Silver Arrows drivers all session, but his hopes of staying there in the race will partly depend on whether Mercedes are back to their usual trend of being stronger on Sundays or if their slight drop-off in competitiveness in the two Austrian races will let McLaren in.
4. Haas drivers on the charge
There has already been plenty of movement when it comes to the final starting grid compared to how qualifying ended up, and it’s not just Sainz who is dropping to the back. Kevin Magnussen will start one place behind Sainz in 20th, but that’s only because the Ferrari driver set sector times in Q3 while Magnussen didn’t.
Such a performance from the Dane shows how quick Haas can be at Paul Ricard, but unlike Ferrari they don’t have either driver starting from a points-scoring position.
READ MORE: Sainz and Magnussen set to start French Grand Prix from the back of the grid after raft of power unit changes
Mick Schumacher has been in fine form of late but saw his final lap time in Q1 deleted for cutting the apex of Turn 3, meaning he dropped out in 19th place when his time should have comfortably seen him reach Q2.
That means Haas will start from 17th and 20th with their two cars, but both have clearly displayed the pace to trouble the top 10, and at Silverstone they managed to climb through from similar positions to score points with both drivers, so it won’t just be Sainz who could provide some entertainment making his way back through the pack.
5. Tyre worries and track limits
For many of our readers around the world, there have been abnormally high temperatures in recent days and weeks, and it has been the case in France too. While they have dropped to a much more familiar level as the weekend has progressed, there are still very high track temperatures that teams and drivers are having to deal with.
And when there’s high track temperatures, the tyres start to struggle. Add in a circuit with a number of high-speed corners and it’s going to be a real challenge for the drivers to handle overheating and degradation.
HIGHLIGHTS: Watch the action from a dramatic qualifying session at the French Grand Prix
All of that also makes it that bit harder to control the car and keep it within the white lines that have been such a talking point since the last race in Austria. Track limits are strictly enforced in a number of places and it’s not just about running wide either, with Schumacher’s lap deletion – as well as one for Yuki Tsunoda in Q1 – coming for cutting an apex.
As always, it’s three warnings before a penalty will be handed out, but with plenty of close racing expected, the drivers will be pushing the limits as much as possible.