French GP: Preview & Predictions for Paul Ricard

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With the events of Canada still hotly debated, Formula 1 gathers at Paul Ricard for the French Grand Prix this weekend.

In what was easily the most controversial moment of the season, Lewis Hamilton continued Mercedes' perfect win record in 2019 after inheriting the victory in Montreal following a penalty given to Sebastian Vettel.

The fallout from that incident will continue as Ferrari confirm their 'right to review' but now they must get back to the important business of racing and worryingly, the drama of Canada may be a little harder to find at Le Castellet.

That's because the more technical Circuit Paul Ricard will likely see a return to Mercedes holding a solid advantage over the field as they did in Barcelona.

Also, when the venue welcomed F1 back to France for the first time in a decade 12 months ago, it was Hamilton who eased to victory after Vettel and Valtteri Bottas had collided at the first corner.

The battle between the two Mercedes' is getting a little more important, however, as the Finn now sits 29 points behind his teammate in the Drivers' standings.

This means Bottas needs to respond between now and the summer break if he is to have a strong title challenge on the run to Abu Dhabi.

Ferrari may still put up a reasonable fight several long straights, including the run down the Mistral, but the twistier sections at either end of the layout are where the Scuderia is likely to trip up.

Perhaps the most interesting battle of the weekend could come between Red Bull and Renault, with the latter finally looking like a team capable of disrupting the power balance at the front in Canada.

Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg found themselves in the gap between Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly but a significant upgrade for the company's home race may just have the Dutchman looking in his mirrors.

Certainly, Renault looks to have taken a massive step to jump clear of the midfield, but that doesn't mean the challenge from McLaren and Haas has faded.

Once again it will be how the American team copes with the tyres which will decide how competitive they are, but with warmer temperatures and more corners, expectations can be a little higher.

Racing Point, Toro Rosso and Alfa Romeo will be looking for any points scraps, while Williams will continue their personal battle at the back of the grid.

A look back in time

While Britain is considered the home of F1, France is where Grand Prix racing was created in 1906 with an event in Le Mans, the same town where the 24-hour race takes place today.

The early history of the French GP in F1 took place on two street circuits at Reims and Rouen, with the two towns alternating between 1950 and 1964.

Charade ended the duopoly in 1965 and the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans held its only Grand Prix in 1967, won by Sir Jack Brabham.

Reims and Rouen only hosted F1 once again each after that and in the 1970s two new venues began to alternate.

One was Paul Ricard and the other in Dijon with this arrangement continuing for over a decade before Ricard hosted eight of the nine races between 1982 and 1990.

Image result for Prost Paul Ricard

Alain Prost was the master of Le Castellet during its first stint on the calendar winning four of his six French GPs at the track.

Nigel Mansell won twice, while Niki Lauda and James Hunt had a win each in 1975 and 1976 respectively.

Before F1 returned in 2018, the circuit that was synonymous with the race was Magny-Cours, which enjoyed an 18-year stretch between 1991 and 2008.

Michael Schumacher took a remarkable eight wins at this track, including wrapping up his fifth world championship in 2002, just 11 races into the season.

It was also the site for some great duels including a memorable duel between Schumacher and David Coulthard in 2000 with the McLaren coming out on top.

A year earlier, Heinz-Herald Frentzen won in appalling conditions giving Jordan their second F1 win after Damon Hill won their first in Belgium in 1998.

Rather than the results, it was the overtaking at the Adelaide hairpin which made Magny-Cours so popular and fans were disappointed when F1 opted for Paul Ricard instead when the French GP was reborn last year.

Predictions

Returning to the present day, and after looking at the form guide to begin this preview, now its time to consider how it will all play out this weekend.

Prepare for another Mercedes 1-2

We've been blessed to have Red Bull and Ferrari be a little closer in the past two races but at this stage, it is hard to see past the pattern of the first five races returning in France.

The circuit is too well suited to the car and their rivals haven't really made the gains to suggest they can challenge them.

Perhaps there is a small question mark over reliability and the possibility for tension between Hamilton and Bottas, but that is the only way I can see the silver express being stopped.

Renault to score a top six finish

Explaining what it is that triggered Renault's sudden improvement in Canada is tricky.

Operationally the team was better, the car seemed perfectly set up for the track and their gains in engine performance were also clear to see.

If that can be repeated at their home race and the upgrades are as strong as claimed, then perhaps F1 could see Renault at least threaten Red Bull as the third best team but does would depend on their race pace.

Certainly, given Pierre Gasly's lack of performance, P6 is a target Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg can aim for regularly.

Talk of 'unsafe re-entry' to the track

After the controversy of Canada, there's no doubt that every similar incident will now get every last detail paid attention to this weekend.

On that point, F1 heads to probably the worst circuit possible at Paul Ricard with its vast run-off areas meaning drivers will have to be careful with how they rejoin the circuit.

The biggest difference is they will likely be totally in control of the car as they do so, with that being the big question regarding the Vettel/Hamilton drama in Montreal.

But with a lot of overtakes and drama last year at this race, there's no doubt that one or two moments may just reignite the debate once again. 

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