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.
Vettel is under pressure to deliver Ferrari‘s first world championship in more than a decade.
But the German heads into tomorrow’s Chinese Grand Prix on a 231-day losing streak, while it is also uncertain whether he will continue to enjoy the backing of Ferrari as their number one driver.
Vettel’s new team-mate, Charles Leclerc, 21, has indicated he could be a contender for the title this season following a strong start to his career with the famous Italian team.
Ecclestone, who is close to Vettel, claimed that the 31-year-old would put his wife, Hanna, and their two young girls before the sport, if he started to feel unloved at Ferrari.
Vettel’s £36million-a-year contract with the Prancing Horse expires at the end of next season. Does he envisage being in the sport beyond 2020?
“I don’t know at the moment,” he said. “I am not going to be in Formula One as long as Bernie was that’s for sure, but I hope I am going to be as fit and sharp as he is today when I am 88.”
Vettel, still sporting his retro moustache, has also faced criticism for the series of mistakes which have derailed his last two title challenges. In Bahrain two weeks ago he spun – for the fourth time in 10 races – while battling Lewis Hamilton.
“If you analyse all the times he has ballsed up, Lewis has always been involved,” said Ecclestone, the sport’s former supremo.
“Seb is so desperate to win another world championship, and for Lewis not to win another. When they are side-by-side, Seb suffers from a mental block, which is wrong.”
But Vettel insisted: “I feel on top of my game. I am very self-critical and very ambitious. I put a lot of expectation on myself.
“I love driving, I love the sensation of speed, and I love fighting these guys. There are a lot of things I like at the moment and things I would miss, so that is why it is not an option to quit tomorrow.
“But the contract is just a piece of paper. We will see what happens.”
Vettel will start behind both Mercedes cars in Sunday’s 1,000th Formula One race here in Shanghai after championship leader Valtteri Bottas pipped Hamilton to pole by just 0.023 seconds. Bottas heads Hamilton in the standings by one point.
The Silver Arrows, meanwhile, could be handed a major boost with the return of Niki Lauda, their non-executive chairman, before the end of the season.
The three-time world champion, 70, has been absent from the paddock for almost a year following a lung transplant last summer.
Austrian Lauda, who survived a fireball inferno while racing at the Nurburgring in 1976, then contracted flu on holiday in Ibiza last January and was hospitalised for a second time.
“Niki is on the mend,” said Ecclestone. “He wanted to go to the first race in Melbourne.
“I saw him when he came out of hospital. I had lunch at his house, and although he was in a wheelchair, he looked in good shape. But then he caught something because his immune system was weak. He had to start all over again, which is not Niki.
“At the moment he is building up his muscles because he wasn’t doing anything for a few months. I am sure he will be back shortly.”
Provided by Press Associations Sports
Lewis Hamilton says Ferrari have an advantage of half-a-second per lap over his Mercedes team, with Sebastian Vettel keeping the Italians on top on the final day of 2019 pre-season testing in Barcelona.
Vettel, returning to the cockpit for the first time since his crash on Wednesday, set a new testing lap record on Friday by eclipsing Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc’s time of one minute and 16.231 seconds by one-hundredth of a second.
But Mercedes finally posted what looks to be a more representative time, with Valtteri Bottas setting a time of one minute 16.561 to trail Ferrari by around three-tenths of a second.
“I think the gap (to Ferrari) is potentially half a second,” reigning world champion Hamilton told reporters.
“Ferrari are the fastest. This is going to be the toughest battle yet. Ferrari’s pace is very, very good at the moment. The challenge is going to be harder than ever.”
But Hamilton added: “Testing is testing. There’s no reward for being quick in testing.
“We don’t know because everyone has different engine modes and fuel loads. It will be four races before we really know where we stand.”
The opening round of the 2019 world championship is scheduled to start in Melbourne on March 17.
Mercedes plan to make more significant changes to their W10 car, but Hamilton added that he has “no reason to expect” the gap to Ferrari to decrease.
“We could get there and it could be bigger, we could get there and it could be less,” Hamilton added.
“There’s no way looking at the GPS to say what fuel load we’re on and what engine mode they’re on. They’re faster on the straights than us, for example.
“Of course we hope it’s not bigger than we might see now and we hope that it’s better.
“But we can’t bank on that so we’ve just got to work towards closing that gap that we think might be there.”
Bottas put some of the fastest C5 rubber on his car to easily trump the previous fastest time recorded by other teams.
Daniil Kvyat continued to underline the performance potential in the Honda power unit by going third for Toro Rosso with one minute 16.898 seconds.
The Russian was ahead of his former team-mate Carlos Sainz in the McLaren and the Haas of Romain Grosjean.
The first session of the day ended under red flags, meanwhile, with Kimi Raikkonen stopping out on track in his Alfa Romeo C38.