Formula One is regarded as the pinnacle of racing, the summit of motorsport. You wouldn’t know it though on an isolated viewing of the French Grand Prix on Sunday.
In fact, the 2019 season as a whole has so far failed miserably to provide the kind of excitement and entertainment that F1 promises with the finest drivers and fastest cars operating in its domain.
Yet, Lewis Hamilton may as well have been all alone on Circuit Paul Ricard having led from start to finish, crossing the chequered flag over 18 seconds ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas in second – who was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the approaching scarlet red Ferrari of Charles Leclerc in his mirrors.
With Mercedes the undisputed dominant force in France over the weekend, the fact that the young Monegasque finished within a second of one of them took everyone by surprise, especially with the way he snuck up on Bottas.
An uneventful race at Le Castellet made for tough viewing and the battle in midfield sparked by technical issues for Lando Norris’ McLaren was a welcome change from the boring narrative at the front.
But while eyes were fixated on the young Englishman’s valiant effort to defend seventh place from a rabid Daniel Ricciardo, followed closely by Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg, Leclerc had gained huge ground.
With eight laps to go, the 21-year-old was eight and a half seconds adrift of Bottas but somehow ended up on his tail heading into the final couple of rounds.
It was like a magic trick. Bottas had been caught off guard and was so nearly hoodwinked.
A few laps after both drivers had pitted, the Finn was steadily pulling away and Leclerc’s engineer even came on the radio and asked if he could push more. His response was calm as he explained that he could but was worried about the damage it would do to his tyres which needed to last until the chequered flag.
He showed excellent composure to bide his time, nurse the tyres and put his head down near the end. It was a far cry from the over-eager driver who crashed out of Q2 in Baku while setting promising times, before trying to compensate for another qualifying debacle in Monaco with an ill-advised Kamikaze overtaking spree on race day that ended in a DNF.
Indeed, Leclerc had looked assured all weekend. Mercedes were untouchable throughout but even in practice and qualifying, he was consistently the best of the rest.
After a disastrous time in Monaco, a podium finish at the Canadian GP seems to have settled Leclerc who was more calculating this time around. A brief Virtual Safety Car period towards the tail end of the race surprised Bottas and the Ferrari new recruit pounced on the opportunity.
Such was the pressure he created that he brought the gap down to 0.4 seconds at one point during the last lap with Bottas even running wide on the final corner. Ultimately, Leclerc simply ran out of laps but Toto Wolff and the rest of the Mercedes team will know it should never have been that close.
Friday’s practice sessions revealed they had a massive 0.7s per lap race pace advantage over the Maranello team. Leclerc however cleverly bridged the gap, showing a new level of maturity in the process.
LECLERC: "I gave it everything. I felt ok with the car but the Mercedes were too quick early on. We did a great job with tyre management and I was catching Valtteri for P2, but ran out of laps"#F1 #FrenchGP 🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/VYfKJgfzv6— Formula 1 (@F1) June 23, 2019
While the Monacan enjoyed a coming of age this weekend, accomplished team-mate Sebastian Vettel seemed hungover from his disappointment in Montreal.
A five-second penalty in Canada denied him a first race win since Belgium last year and effectively ended his bid to catch Hamilton in the championship. Vettel was then forced to address a failed Ferrari appeal ahead of the action in France.
Underwhelming displays in practice and a few tetchy radio exchanges in an error-strewn qualifying session suggested his head just wasn’t in it. His start to the race was modest as well, maintaining his P7 out of the first few turns but failing to improve on it, getting held up in traffic while the front-runners pulled away.
The German needs to refocus sooner rather than later. With a serious young talent blossoming in the same garage, he should feel threatened because he is.
Leclerc nearly pulled a fast one on Bottas and if Vettel continues to be distracted, it’s only a matter of time before the youngster pulls out of the four-time world champion’s slipstream and accelerates into the distance.
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