As Formula 1 resumes after its latest fortnight break, the paddock moves south across Europe this weekend to Le Castellet and Circuit Paul Ricard for the French Grand Prix.
Two weeks on from Charles Leclerc taking his first win since Round 3 in Melbourne, Ferrari have now won successive races for the first time this season and after seeing rivals Red Bull threaten to leave them in the dust, it seems we may now have not just a more balanced title race but a real two-way scrap for team honours come November.
Reconvening on the French riviera, two more stops remain before F1 takes its summer break and as record-breaking temperatures continue to scorch the continent, the action on the track looks set to be equally red-hot in the shadows of Marseille.
With the season having now passed its halfway point, the stakes are again on the rise. So who will take the advantage to the Hungaroring in a week’s time?
Ferrari firing again
How quickly fortunes can change in Formula 1.
Before arriving at Silverstone at the beginning of the month, Scuderia had gone six races without a win during which time Team boss Mattia Binotto had seen his two cars retire four times and gain only as many podiums finishes.
Three weeks on however, and the Prancing Horse will be trotting into the south of France with vim.
Following back-to-back race wins in Britain and last time out on Red Bull home territory in Austria, Ferrari have now chopped their rivals lead in the Constructors Championship down to a more manageable 56 points.
As Leclerc ended his own race win drought in Spielberg also, the Monegasque himself has leapfrogged Sergio Perez in the standings and now continues the battle to claw Max Verstappen back this weekend.
Verstappen in mood to spoil
Thwarting Verstappen will be no feat, indeed the only thing more dangerous than the flying Dutchman is one that is keen to get back into the winner’s circle at parc ferme.
In the three GPs Circuit Paul Ricard has held since its 2018 return from Magny-Cours in 1990, Verstappen has claimed one victory here – 12 months ago – and will be looking to his French showing as he seeks to stick a fork in Ferrari’s so far mini resurgence.
That is not to say Verstappen is out of form. Far from it. But his race day fortunes have of late have only produced a P7 and a runners-up spot.
There is more than a pinch of irony in that statistic, in that, just like earlier in the campaign when Leclerc was top dog in qualifying but failed to convert his Saturday dominance into race wins, the same roles have now be reversed with Verstappen taking pole for the last two races, but Ferrari coming out on top.
When leaping from his Red Bull in victory last season in France it went a long way in propelling him to the title; Verstappen will be keen to replicate that this weekend.
Checo ‘still in contention’
For his teammate Sergio Perez, the more recent story has been one of similar frustration.
Having picked up a second win for Red Bull in Monaco and a runner-up spot in Baku to follow, the Mexican’s ambitions in challenging Verstappen for the crown have rather been derailed after two enforced retirements in Canada and last time out in the Styrian mountains.
With the consolation of P2 at Silverstone sandwiched between, Checo has seen his charge halted but remains confident he can not only keep his pace and points tally up but make Verstappen sit a little more nervously in his own driver’s seat.
As Perez told F1.com, he believes his title aspirations remain healthy and whilst the last three races have not brought the desired results, his performance in France last year leaves significant room for optimism this weekend, despite concerns over tire deg in the heat.
“After a tough weekend in Austria, it’s great to be back racing and have a chance to put things right. “We have had two DNFs in the past three races and we can’t afford that in the championships so I’m aiming to change that this weekend in France. I’m still in contention for the drivers’ championship, so personally it is also important not to lose any more points.
“Last year I scored my second podium with the team in France, and I am very looking forward to trying to repeat that. Paul Ricard is a challenging track because there are different racing lines you can take through the corners and it’s not easy to know which is the best one to use.
The high temperatures will also be a factor to consider this weekend, physically it looks like it will be a very demanding race and we will have to see how it goes with the tyre degradation because of the heat.”
More history for Hamilton
One-hundred-and-eighty-six podiums, 4,274.5 points, seven world titles and 103 race wins; Lewis Hamilton‘s history in F1 is a rolling conveyer belt of records and staggering achievements. This weekend, the 37-year-old breaks another milestone.
Fifteen seasons into a glittering career as arguably the greatest F1 driver in history, his latest term has been probably his toughest to date but on Sunday, the Stevenage driver will compete in his 300th race – a truly jaw-dropping feat.
Forced to step down from his throne last season somewhat under duress, his first term as chaser for the title since 2016 has seen Hamilton go without a win with half the campaign in the books.
Just four podiums are the Briton’s lone bragging rights, however, Hamilton has finished on it in his last three races in Montreal, Silverstone and Spielberg.
As Hamilton focuses on keeping up his improving harmony with his troublesome W13, his place will be taken in FP1 by Mercedes reserve team driver Nyck De Vries.
The Dutchman, the current E Formula 1 champion has represented the Silver Arrows for the last two season’s in Abu Dhabi’s end of season test, but this will be his first season proper test.
As another Mercedes protege grabs his chance in the limelight, Hamilton however, will be eyeing Q3 and to again challenge for the front row of the grid. In any event, this will be a special weekend not only for Hamilton but also for F1.
The Formula 1 Lenovo Grand Prix de France takes places this weekend at Circuit Paul Ricard, Le Castellet.
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