F1: Max Verstappen is Mr Consistent in title fight with Lewis Hamilton – things we learned – Asia Despatch

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Mercedes have made mistakes in the past but often find themselves so far ahead of the field that they have rarely had to face the consequences. 

That has changed, and is continuing to change, as Red Bull generate the belief that engulfed the garage back in their last championship run of 2013. 

Mercedes have won out since then, Lewis Hamilton taking six and Nico Rosberg, who called his old team-mate ‘soft’ this weekend for losing the lead so late in the race, taking one. 

Max Verstappen kept his championship bid on track by claiming another 2021 Grand Prix win

Max Verstappen kept his championship bid on track by claiming another 2021 Grand Prix win

The Dutchman is quickly becoming used to finishing No 1 and he is a major threat to Mercedes

The Dutchman is quickly becoming used to finishing No 1 and he is a major threat to Mercedes

The fault lay with Mercedes’ engineers and not the drivers but mistakes are creeping in both in and out of the cockpit, and with every passing race belief is growing that this is the year for Hamilton to be dethroned. 

With that in mind, as well as movement at McLaren and gaping wounds at Ferrari to talk over, Sportsmail picks out six things we learned from the action at Le Castellet.  

Cracks starting to show at Mercedes 

‘Lewis, this one is on us,’ James Vowles, the dejected Mercedes chief strategist, told Hamilton as he pulled into the No 2 position at the end of the race. 

‘Thank you for doing everything you could to recover that race. You drove incredibly well.’

The old rhyme of first the worst, second the best, won’t sit with a driver that is desperately trying to surpass Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world championships. Heading into this season they are tied. Many assumed a formality was ahead for the Briton to claim title No 8.

Red Bull's two-stop strategy killed off Mercedes' hopes of victory as they stayed on hard tyres

Red Bull’s two-stop strategy killed off Mercedes’ hopes of victory as they stayed on hard tyres

Mercedes’ strategists were pushing for a one-stop race; without doubt, that was the team’s Plan A in France.

But early on when tyre degradation was a growing concern, particularly on the front set, Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas saw their suggestions of switching a two-stop strategy fall on deaf ears. 

Verstappen stopped for a set of medium tyres on lap 32 and Mercedes continued to keep both of their drivers out on track on worn-out hard tyres. They were both sitting ducks and it proved costly. Even a well oiled machine like this Mercedes F1 team is make mistakes. 

‘Why the f*ck does no one listen to me when I say it’s going to be a two-stopper?!’ F***ing hell,’ Bottas exclaimed over his radio.

Hamilton's engineers took responsibility but mistakes are piling up - and they are very costly

Hamilton’s engineers took responsibility but mistakes are piling up – and they are very costly

The issue Mercedes are having is that mistakes such as this prove particularly damaging not just for their drivers’ ambitions for a title shot but also in the constructors’ championship. 

Two of three spots on the podium going to Red Bull is enough to give Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff a sleepless night. There can be no repeat in Austria or someone will be searching for a big red button.  

Verstappen is Mr Consistent 

It was concluded that there was no driver error in Baku when Verstappen, in apparent cruise control, saw one of his tyres fail him, sending him spiralling into the barrier and ending his race.

What he was fortunate for was Hamilton knocking his ‘magic’ switch and losing all control of his brakes, seeing him finish 15th and blowing a major chance at points.

There will be those that point to Verstappen losing his grip after Turn One here before going off and giving up the lead to Hamilton.

Verstappen extended his lead in the championship to 12 points with a brilliant win in France

Verstappen extended his lead in the championship to 12 points with a brilliant win in France

But he stuck to his task and his pressure is immense on Mercedes, he’s breathing down their neck and it could be argued his pace is so good it is forcing them into mistakes. 

Mercedes’ strategy will get the bulk of the blame for the France faux-pas but take nothing away from Verstappen who, in the first seven races, has finished 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, DNF, and 1st.  Only a tyre blowout in Baku cost him a perfect podium run to start 2021.

Hamilton had his moment of madness in Baku, a disaster in Monaco and saw himself ignored on strategy in France. Two of those three were punished to maximum effect. 

‘What happened in Baku you can’t turn back, those points are lost,’ Verstappen said after.

‘I never really want to talk about revenge (against Hamilton, after a strategy error in Spain cost Red Bull) – you keep on going, try to do the best you can and of course I’m very happy with this result.’

Verstappen gave up the lead on Turn 1 of the opening lap but recovered superbly to take P1

Verstappen gave up the lead on Turn 1 of the opening lap but recovered superbly to take P1

Bottas’ outburst has him on a fine line 

The ‘wingman’ as he was once affectionately known by his team firmly has a chip on his shoulder and he doesn’t care who hears about it.

‘Why the f**k does no one listen to me,’ he raged on the team radio. No one quite knew what to say by way of response. 

He felt like a ‘sitting duck’ as he lost out on the podium and in a season which has brought far more lows for Bottas than it has highs his patience runs thin when tangible success feels within reach.

‘I was making very clear what I was thinking,’ he told Autosport when quizzed on his outburst. 

‘I was suggesting a two-stop earlier in the race but the team went one-stop and here we are.’ 

Valtteri Bottas finished third in qualifying but poor strategy cost him a podium finish in race

Valtteri Bottas finished third in qualifying but poor strategy cost him a podium finish in race

Bottas is slumped in fifth in the drivers’ championship, behind Verstappen, Hamilton, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and McLaren’s Lando Norris. He is just seven points ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

Three podium finishes – all third – as well as two DNFs is stark contrast to his opening seven races of the 2020 season in which he won the season opener and missed the podium only once in seven races. 

Bottas’ future at Mercedes is the talk of the paddock with Williams’ George Russell believing he is primed and ready for the seat in 2022. 

Between now and the season finishing Bottas will make sure he doesn’t go down without a fight – and a whole load of expletives.  

Ferrari’s progress on the wane

So much of this season has brought real promise and optimism for those working hard behind the scenes at Ferrari’s HQ in Maranello. 

But France was nothing short of a complete disaster. 

And worst of all, nobody at Ferrari can quite understand what went so wrong?

‘Incredibly difficult race today,’ Leclerc tweeted after coming home in 16th position.

‘We will work as much as possible to understand the issues of today’s race and we will come back stronger in Austria.’

Ferrari saw both drivers miss out on the points for the first race this season after a disaster

Ferrari saw both drivers miss out on the points for the first race this season after a disaster

There were similar sentiments from Carlos Sainz Jnr as he finished P11, making it the first race this season where Ferrari had both drivers miss out on the points. 

‘Not the way we wanted to finish the weekend,’ the Spaniard wrote. ‘It is quite clear that we lacked pace and we struggled with degradation through the entire race. We must analyse it, understand the issue and solve it.

‘I’m convinced we will improve as a team. Austria awaits’. 

Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto was left licking his wounds from what he described as a ‘beating’, with McLaren, their main rival for third in the constructors’ championship, taking full advantage.  

‘Our race was a bad one, no doubt, out of the points,’ Binotto told Sky Italy. ‘I have to say also a beating in some way, thinking of the Constructors’ Championship. Something didn’t work, we had a lot of graining on the tyres, we didn’t expect so much of it.

France proved a 'beating' for Ferrari, said team boss Mattia Binotto, as they were humbled

France proved a ‘beating’ for Ferrari, said team boss Mattia Binotto, as they were humbled

Charles Leclerc was at pains to say Ferrari will 'come back stronger' in the next race in Austria

Charles Leclerc was at pains to say Ferrari will ‘come back stronger’ in the next race in Austria

Team-mate Carlos Sainz insists Ferrari need to analyse what went wrong to avoid a repeat

Team-mate Carlos Sainz insists Ferrari need to analyse what went wrong to avoid a repeat

‘So when one talks of graining, talks about the slipping of the tyre on the asphalt, maybe the too high temperatures of the tyres, I think we’ll see in the analysis. I don’t want to anticipate, but between the assumptions probably [there is] the overheating of the tyres.

‘There will be other tracks where we will be more in trouble precisely for the temperature of the asphalt. 

‘Not all the tracks have these conditions, not all the tracks from the warm point of view can be critical. We’ll face them one at a time.’  

Ricciardo beginning to find his feet

To say it was a rocky start to life at McLaren for Daniel Ricciardo would have been a real understatement. 

In what many in the F1 cognoscenti feel is ‘last chance saloon’ for the popular Aussie, he was finding himself routinely outclassed by team-mate Norris. 

In four of the opening seven races he has finished outside of the top six. For Norris, that has happened just once – in Spain, where Ricciardo, who finished sixth, finally finished ahead of him. 

But there were plenty of positives for Ricciardo to take from France, finishing sixth and a place behind Norris. 

Daniel Ricciardo (left) is slowly getting to grips with his new 'home' at McLaren Racing

Daniel Ricciardo (left) is slowly getting to grips with his new ‘home’ at McLaren Racing

That gap between them simply has to close and Ricciardo is beginning to look more comfortable in doing so. 

‘After the frustrations of Monaco, I kind of took a step back and was like “big picture” – I know that it’s going to come and I know that if I keep persisting,’ he said. 

‘I think like staying resilient through it all, days like this will come and I will be able to battle, pull off some moves and all that sort of stuff. 

‘So this car will feel like home and I think today it started to feel a little more like home – and the next two (races) coming up are hopefully fun ones as well, with some good moves, battles – and it’s nice seeing the others suffer a little bit more than us as well.’

Russell doing prospects no harm with ‘best’ Williams drive 

While Bottas sits on the edge of an implosion, Russell is quietly keeping his cool over at Williams. 

‘It was really, really difficult from within,’ Russell told Sky Sports F1. ‘It was a really great race from within.

‘Managing to do a couple of really nice overtakes, one with Tsunoda at the end which for us, finishing ahead of these cars, the Alfa [Romeo], Ocon, Tsunoda at the end, for us is massive.

George Russell (left) is steadily improving with Williams and a Mercedes switch is inevitable

George Russell (left) is steadily improving with Williams and a Mercedes switch is inevitable

‘Finishing 12th on merit, I would go as far as saying it was our best ever race together.’

Russell dipped and dived to pull off multiple overtakes and while there were no points to show for it this is a car that is fighting for every spot and France represented a real moment of progress. 

Russell got pretty chippy after his race for Mercedes last season but his credentials are speaking for themselves and he need not concern himself in any potential spat with Bottas. 

Good things come to those who wait and in Russell’s case he is unlikely to be waiting very long.  

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