2018 French GP Preview – By Bob Constanduros
A new Grand Prix is always an exciting prospect: new track, new challenges, new hotels and restaurants, new airport even. There’s the weather, perhaps, maybe even new support races, new paddock layout, new organisation. A new Grand Prix is measured on many levels; sometimes, the organisation and all those factors measure up to the new challenge, sometimes they don’t. We all have to wait and see how efficient the preparation has been.
Drivers and teams have the same challenges, mixed up with a thermometer of performance, whether the car will perform better or worse than elsewhere, whether the tarmac, the kerbs, the contours have been taken into account and how these affect the beast that they are going to race.
Now mix in one of the most stressful periods of Formula One racing ever, that this new venue begins Formula One’s first ever triple header – or maybe you would prefer five Grands Prix in six weeks. Suddenly that first step into the unknown becomes just one step into the unknown and part of another. And suddenly the pressures on logistics, for instance, becomes even greater.
That affects people differently. Most teams will have a massive logistics department to deal with this challenge. They will have worked out the requirements and planned a long time ahead. They will have built up a stock of parts prior to the potential damage to the cars in these races – although the circuits, in theory, aren’t necessarily that car-damaging, following Monaco and Montreal.
But something will always come along to trip people up. And one always wonders just how prepared the organisation and local infrastructure is when it comes to the circuit itself.
Who, for instance, wouldn’t want to spend a weekend in the south of France? It is the most gorgeous area, of that there’s no doubt. I first visited the Circuit Paul Ricard in 1970 when it was still being built and have seen it used for a variety of programmes. Toyota, for instance, used to have their own base here and it has been used for 24 hour testing ever since. A number of drivers owe their experience here to preparation for Le Mans: think Nico Hulkenberg, Brendon Hartley – but not Fernando Alonso.
Pirelli, for instance, have also tested here, so that Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, Stoffel Vandoorne, Kimi Raikkonen, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel have experience of the circuit, although not necessarily in the current configuration, nor in the dry. Then there are the drivers who raced here in their formative years. Lance Stroll won here in F3, Daniel Ricciardo has raced here, Esteban Ocon had his first win here in single seaters, Carlos Sainz won here twice in Renault 3.5, Pierre Gasly won in Formula 4 and Formula Renault, Hartley won here in LMP2, Kevin Magnussen won in World Series and Vandoorne also won here in Formula Renault.
All of which means that there are very few Circuit Paul Ricard virgins. That’s not necessarily the case with Formula One’s organisation, nor some of the teams, and some of the media. Testing places minimal demands on a circuit, racing is something else altogether.
If you were here when Formula One last visited the circuit (1990), you will be well aware that the worst aspect of the whole thing was the traffic. It is a lovely area, the weather is superb, the roads that exist are better than most British ones currently, but they aren’t very big and there’s not too many of them. Little has been done to the roads since 1990 so there are fears that once again, these will be the problem. Sure, the circuit has worked out a strategy to get people to and from the towns and villages down by the sea – plus Marseille in one direction, Toulon in the other – but is this going to be enough?
When F1 rolls into town, the teams, officials, journalists all know exactly what they want and how big an organisation is required. Whether that’s been understood here at Circuit Paul Ricard remains to be seen, but there was a certain amount of evidence that they weren’t quite ready yesterday. Still, as I tweeted, it has to be built sometime.
Down the road at Marseille airport, there was evidence that the hire car companies were massively unprepared. It’s not of interest to spectators at home, but people waited for hours for their cars. How hopelessly useless was that?
More importantly, what kind of race are we going to see? The track has recently been resurfaced which will means black tarmac absorbing lots of degrees of centigrade, so it’s going to be a hot surface. There are also high grip patches in the surface, following damage in a Blancpain GT race, which drivers might target. Pirelli have brought the ‘thin’ ultras, super soft and soft compound tyres as seen at the re-surfaced Barcelona, so we’re hoping for a two stop race rather than one-stop. And there’s a long pit lane here, which will cost two stoppers time. Asphalt and tyre stress are rated highly by Pirelli, abrasion pretty low.
There are two long DRS zones here leading into slow corners, which hopefully will allow for overtaking. And a lot of the corners here are connected to others, so that it’s quite rare to have a single corner, requiring drivers to get the combination right. Of course, one of those single corners is the infamous Signes which will be taken flat in eighth gear and will be the corner that the drivers enjoy most.
But generally, this is a pretty flat circuit with apex, turn-in and brake points quite difficult to pinpoint. The surrounding countryside is wonderful and rolling with the mountains overlooking the track, but the circuit itself is on a plateau and therefore flat, creating its own problems.
The temperatures are expected to be bordering on thirty throughout the weekend, with no rain, but the final factor is always the mistral wind which is due to affect the track at least once during the weekend, so that will have its effect too. Braking isn’t massively important here in spite of the chicanes, but like every race worldwide, the Circuit Paul Ricard has its challenges and hopefully they won’t impact but rather excite the spectator.