By Sean Kelly, C4F1 statistician
The Mercedes F1 team has never been beaten at Paul Ricard.
Not in a race. Not in any qualifying segment. Not even in a free practice session.
Yes, it’s a relatively small data sample – Mercedes never competed at this track as either constructor or engine supplier until it returned to the calendar in 2018, but the fact that nobody has outpaced them at any time since then is still hugely impressive.
That stat underpinned yet another dominant weekend for the Silver Arrows, who are now 140 points clear in the Constructors’ Championship, with lead driver Lewis Hamilton 76 points ahead of anyone bar his own teammate Valtteri Bottas in the Drivers’ Championship.
Sunday saw the team claim their 50th 1-2 finish in Formula 1, 24 hours after breaking the record for most front row lockouts. Hamilton and Bottas’ qualifying performance was the 63rd time the team had the front row entirely to themselves, overhauling what was previously a four-way tie between themselves, McLaren, Williams and Ferrari.
Having now won six of the last seven races, Hamilton’s win was the 49th in his career when starting from pole position (nobody has ever won 50 from pole). Additionally, it was his 200th career points finish, a plateau only previously reached by Fernando Alonso (202), Kimi Raikkonen (209) and Michael Schumacher (221).
Although teammate Valtteri Bottas may not be rewriting the record books race-on-race, he did take a 20th consecutive top five finish in Sunday’s race. Bottas will be left pondering how to get on terms with Hamilton, as he has not led his teammate at any point in the last four consecutive races.
Bottas came under immense pressure from Charles Leclerc in the final laps, as the Monegasque attempted to break Mercedes’ Paul Ricard hegemony. Although unsuccessful, Leclerc did at least score a podium finish on a circuit located only 109 miles from his birthplace in Monaco – closer than either of the French drivers in the race!
Max Verstappen has established a reputation as a man to watch at every Grand Prix, but Sunday’s race was one of the most low-key of the Dutchman’s career, crossing the line fourth, 16 seconds behind Leclerc, and 28 seconds ahead of the next car. Nevertheless, he’s not finished lower than he has started in any of the last 17 races (assuming you disregard his 5-second post-race penalty in Monaco).
Speaking of low-key afternoons, Sebastian Vettel started the day seventh on the grid, the result of a mediocre Q3 performance. The after effect extended into raceday itself, with the German an uncharacteristic fifth overall, but he was at least able to spoil Lewis Hamilton’s afternoon in one aspect in particular.
As Hamilton crossed the line to win the race he simultaneously set the fastest lap. When added to his pole position and leading the Grand Prix from lights to flag, it set up a sixth “grand slam” victory of Hamilton’s career, surpassing the totals of Alberto Ascari and Michael Schumacher, and trailing only Jim Clark, whose record of eight has stood since 1965.
At least, that was the case until Vettel intervened. After a late pitstop for soft tyres, Vettel’s final lap of the race deprived Hamilton – who was on old hard compound tyres – of the fastest lap by just 0.024s! It is a microcosm of Ferrari’s season that this can be considered an achievement….
Over in the “best of the rest” championship, McLaren showed signs of a team finally starting to bridge the gap to the Mercedes / Ferrari / Red Bull juggernaut. On Saturday, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz locked out the third row of the grid, the first time both McLarens have started in the top six since Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button did so at the 2014 Italian GP.
Inevitably, they found it impossible to contain the recovering Ferrari of Vettel, but Sainz was able to hold on to finish sixth, tying McLaren’s best result of the season, and perhaps more impressively, being the only driver from outside the big three teams to finish on the lead lap.
While Sunday was a relatively lacklustre race, there was some serious action on the last lap as a four-way battle between Norris, the two Renaults and Kimi Raikkonen spilled over the track limits and into Paul Ricard’s infinite run-off areas.
The initial upshot of this was that Daniel Ricciardo stole seventh place – the first time he’d run in the top seven positions all day – and it initially gave him a third consecutive points finish.
Alas, it would not last. After reviewing the replays, the stewards handed down a pair of five-second penalties, dropping Ricciardo out of the points completely. This primarily benefitted Raikkonen, for whom seventh ended a three-race pointless streak, while coincidentally maintaining his record of never having finished lower than seventh in any French GP since his F1 debut in 2001.
Ricciardo’s penalty also meant that Nico Hulkenberg was the only Renault to officially score on Sunday, as the team celebrated the 40th anniversary of their first-ever win at Dijon in 1979 (the first-ever victory for a turbocharged engine). It means the Renault duo are now tied on 16 points each this season.
Having spent most of the day in seventh place, Lando Norris’ race fell away with him as a result of fading hydraulics and failed power steering, and that late scrap dropped him back to tenth. His subsequent promotion to ninth at the expense of Ricciardo may prove critical in the final reckoning – McLaren are now eight points ahead of Renault in the battle for fourth in the Constructors’ Championship.
The Ricciardo sanction also spared some of the blushes for Pierre Gasly, his successor at Red Bull, who inherited the final points position having originally finished nine seconds behind Ricciardo, and 1m17s behind the sister Red Bull of Max Verstappen. Given that he has only finished within 10 seconds of his teammate once this season (in Monaco), the pressure is mounting on the Frenchman.
In a remarkably incident-free race throughout the field, it was worth noting that Robert Kubica beat his Williams teammate George Russell for the first time. Matters were helped when Russell’s attempts to pass Kubica around Signes resulted in Russell hitting the polystyrene marker boards and damaging the front wing.
While Russell’s best lap was still 0.778s quicker than his teammate, it could still be considered progress for Kubica, who has been the slowest qualifier at every race. Williams have not run in a points-scoring position at any time in any race in 2019, and look odds-on to go pointless in a full season for the first time since Williams Grand Prix Engineering was founded in 1978.
A journey to the Red Bull Ring is next, in F1’s first back-to-back race weekends in 2019. It was there that Mercedes suffered their most recent retirements 12 months ago, but a win next weekend will see them tie McLaren’s 11-race run in Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s first season as teammates in 1988, the longest winning streak in Formula 1 history.