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2018 F1

French Grand Prix : Free Practice Analysis

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Lewis Hamilton dominated both the practice sessions on the Free Practice Friday of the 2018 French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard Circuit in Le Castellet. While the Briton had a glitch free run in both sessions, his Ferrari rivals were fourth and fifth fastest consistently in both sessions with the 2008 French GP pole sitter Kimi Raikkonen leading the Ferrari pack, followed by Sebastian Vettel. Red Bull Racing team driver Daniel Ricciardo was the quickest of the two Red Bull cars in both sessions, within two tenths of a second adrift off the Mercedes in the first session and seven tenths slower in the second one.

While lap times were much quicker in FP1 than FP2, there was a lot of gust and wind on the track causing turbulence and hurting the aero functioning of many cars, apart from the Red Bull Racing team.The difference between Hamilton’s FP1 and FP2 times was almost three tenths, where in the latter session he was slower than the previous one. Both the practice sessions witnessed many drivers going off-track and were interrupted by red flags. A common corner at which most drivers went off track and continued was Turn 6 where there was a lot gust and strong headwinds.

In the first practice session, Marcus Ericsson car went off at turn 14, and caught fire once it rammed into the tyre-wall. The Swedish driver was unable to see the fire due to a broken rear-view mirror and was later prompted on the radio to get out of his car, and managed walking out unscathed. A part to note from Ericsson’s crash was the amount of time it took him push the halo out while the car was catching fire. Although Sauber had their mechanics working in the garage, assembling the spare chassis the swedish driver was unable to set a time or participate in the second practice session. In the second session, Sergio Perez was approaching Turn 5 at full speed when his left rear wheel detached and sent him spinning into the barriers at Turn 6, ringing out the red flags again. Brendon Hartley had another spin at Turn 9, due to an engine issue, however there was only a brief Virtual Safety Car period while his car was wheeled out.

While Hamilton stamped his authority by clocking the fastest sectors and stringing together the fastest lap of FP2 which was 1: 32.539, his team-mate Valtteri Bottas was seventh fastest in FP2 and 1.617 seconds slower. The Finn failed to go out for the long run or race simulations as his car was brought into the pits after the session was red flagged. When asked about the problem, Mercedes said “We need to take the floor off and do some precautionary checks on the cooling system. That’s unfortunately session over for Valtteri as we have a water leak, that needs further investigation. Although Mercedes look strong they will not have the tyre advantage here at Paul Ricard, as this circuit can be demanding on aerodynamic performance, and grip levels.

As far as power dynamics are concerned the Silver Arrows team confirmed that they were using an upgraded unit in Paul Ricard. The team spokesperson mentioned “While we would have had a Phase 2 in Canada, this is a Phase 2.1 with some ‘added goodness’ thanks to a fantastic effort by the team in Brixworth”. Since Canada, the Brixworth team are supposed to have reworked six units and spares. A reason why Mercedes delayed their upgrades was due to serious concerns about whether their engine had enough tolerance to make it through seven races without affecting reducing the torque output and affecting the performance. Their fastest time of FP2 might be seven tenths quicker but that is not much of a teller, as their arch rivals Ferrari seemed to be taking it slow.

The Silver Arrows could have a qualifying advantage while the Red Bull Racing team drivers will have the race advantage due to their aerodynamic efficiency and tyre advantage influencing their speed performance. While the tyres allocated for the weekend are the soft, supersoft and ultrasoft compound, Hamilton and Vettel have brought only one set of soft tyres, out of which Hamilton has used his and Vettel has one more left to use, and it is to risky to use in qualifying. Therefore one could see the Red Bull Racing drivers qualify Q2 on the yellow soft tyre, to have a longer first stint in the race and get an edge over the rest.

The following are the average lap times of the top 5 drivers excluding Bottas on the different tyre compounds during the race simulations in the second free practice:

Driver   Ultrasoft   Supersoft  
Lewis Hamilton 

1: 37.940 (5 laps)  

1: 37.277 (3 laps) 

Daniel Ricciardo 

1: 38.577 (5 laps) 

1: 37.637 (3 laps) 

Sebastian Vettel 

1: 36.715 (2 laps) 

1: 37.324 (4 laps) 

Max Verstappen 

1: 37.029 (2 laps) 

1: 38.077 (4 laps) 

Kimi Raikkonen 

1: 38.023 (5 laps) 

1: 37.133 (1 lap) * irrelevant 

When it comes to the long run simulations on the ultrasoft compound Hamilton’s Mercedes is the quickest, while Raikkonen’s Ferrari slots in second, less than a tenth slower than the Merc, followed by Ricciardo with the third fastest average time, over five laps each. While comparing the supersoft compound average times between Hamilton is the quickest again and Ricciardo’s average is about five tenths of the Briton’s. However Verstappen and Vettel did extra laps on the supersoft, and if one had to judge the Ferrari’s performance on the red compound their average is about three tenths of a second quicker than Ricciardo and almost seventh tenths of a second quicker than Verstappen’s Red Bull which completed over four laps. Therefore on the supersoft compound the Ferrari is about a tenth of a second adrift off the Mercedes in terms of race pace, and comfortably ahead of the Red Bull Racing cars.

Despite the interrupted sessions, the current statistics would suggest the pecking order is Mercedes in top spot, followed by Ferrari and then Red Bull Racing. However, one has to also consider that there were three tracks on the calendar that were resurfaced for the Pirelli tyres, on Silver Arrows suggestion, which were Barcelona, Paul Ricard, and Silverstone. The characteristic of the Barcelona track was it was power sensitive but the French circuit this weekend demands aerodynamic efficiency, which means where Mercedes gain advantage Ferrari can make up on the chassis side, and remain unhurt with the grip factor at this circuit.

As far as the mid-field goes the Haas drivers looked like the best of the rest and might be seen taking P7 or P8 in qualifying, but where the momentum carries forward to the race, remains to be seen. Between Toro Rosso and Renault, Pierre Gasly was able to log some consistent lap times on the supersoft tyre and matched Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Renault which were doing race simulations on the soft and ultrasoft compound respectively. The reason Gasly’s Toro Rosso looks competitive is due to Honda’s upgraded engine which was brought to Montreal, and is speculated to produce 40 bhp more than it did previously. If the speculation is true than it almost matches the Renault engine terms of torque output, however its reliability remains a concern.

By FP3 and Qualifying Ferrari could accelerate their game as their momentum is normally a slow build up from Friday to Saturday. As far as qualifying goes it should be a close shootout amidst the top six and when it comes to the race, Red Bull Racing could have a tyre and strategy advantage over the rest. The French track, however might be slightly better than Monaco and Canada for overtaking but still limited. The only factor that could mix up the grid is drivers going off track at a few turns due to the grip issues, which is a unique characteristic of this circuit, due to which it was used heavily for tyre tests and is commonly known as the ‘High Technology Test Track. Pirelli too has used this track for tyre tests this season and in the past due to its unusual design element that makes it demanding on the grip levels.

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