Updated: Jan 27, 2022
The 2021 season had so many incredible races that it was a challenge picking a favourite, but I’m going to say it was the French Grand Prix. The Circuit Paul Ricard had been a Mercedes stronghold since it had returned to the calendar in 2018, and despite the challenge posed to the Silver Arrows from Red Bull, it was Mercedes who were still the heavy favourites in 2021. However, this was thrown out the window on Saturday, when Verstappen claimed only his 2nd pole of the season, over 2 tenths quicker than the Mercedes behind him, but he still had Hamilton lining-up alongside him on the grid.
Written by Danny Jones, Edited by Aiden Hover
And then came Sunday, Verstappen held the start going through Turn 1, but a very uncharacteristic error caused him to oversteer, and was forced to skip the Turn 1 and 2 chicane, which gifted Hamilton the lead. Hamilton was never really able to pull away, and Red Bull reacted to Valtteri Bottas pitting on Lap 17, by pitting a lap later. Mercedes pitted Hamilton the lap after, but this would prove to be a disastrous error, as Red Bull were successful in performing the undercut, after the 2 title rivals came side-by-side when the Mercedes exited the pitlane, before Verstappen swept up the inside at Turn 1.
Graining was much higher than expected at the Circuit Paul Ricard, and when graining on the hards was spotted early on, the potential for a two-stopper became evident, first suggested by Fernando Alonso. And similarly to the first stint, the 2 championship rivals could not pull away from each other, the gap staying consistently under 2 seconds. And then Red Bull gave up track position to pit Max Verstappen on lap 32, to take the 2 stop gamble.
However, Red Bull split the strategies by keeping Perez on a one-stop. Perez, who is renowned for his tyre-saving ability, pitted as late as lap 24, putting him in a comfortable 4th place. Perez’s position proved awkward for Mercedes, as a 2-stop strategy would be difficult to perform as it would require getting back past Perez, which certainly would not be an easy task, due to the Mexican’s incredible defensive driving ability.
This left Verstappen the only driver in the top 4 to risk the 2 stop. Perez allowed his teammate through on lap 35, in order for Verstappen to chase down the Mercedes. On Lap 44, Verstappen made his move on Bottas, after he went wide at the Mistral Chicane. Verstappen swept through at Signes, and had 9 laps to close down a 5 second gap to Hamilton. Just 5 laps later, Perez’s tyre advantage allowed him to overtake Bottas, similarly to his teammate, through Signes.
And on Lap 52 of 53, Verstappen made his move on Hamilton. He activated his DRS down the Mistral Straight, and as they entered the chicane, Verstappen snuck through to overtake the Briton and took the lead of the race. 1 lap later, Verstappen crossed the line to give Red Bull their 3rd successive win, something that was seen as unlikely heading into the weekend. They topped off their fantastic day, with Perez joining Verstappen on the podium.
All the incredible races in 2021 were so different, but what made the French Grand Prix so special was the hard, old-school racing on display. Whilst many other races were so great due to crashes, safety cars, weather and other dramas, the French Grand Prix was simply an excellent battle of strategies alongside some fantastic wheel-to-wheel racing, with everyone on the edge of their seats right until the end. It was unpredictable, but didn’t require any external influences to decide the race, and considering the races that the Circuit Paul Ricard produced in 2018 and 2019, the 2021 event was truly a thriller.