Before arriving in France for this weekend's race at Paul Ricard, Ferrari had a clear strategy for defeating Red Bull and Max Verstappen in Saturday's qualifying.
With Carlos Sainz Jr. taking a fourth power unit, relegating him to the rear of the grid regardless of the outcome on Sunday, the strategy was straightforward. Get Sainz into Q3, and then have him provide Charles Leclerc with a slipstream on both of his flying laps to help him surpass Red Bull. After executing the strategy with the perfection of the Patrouille de France, Ferrari was rewarded with pole position for Leclerc. Exactly as planned
But if Leclerc is to win on Sunday, Ferrari's plan may need to be even more astute. This particular French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard could be the most difficult for teams since the circuit returned to the schedule in 2018.
Given that he was faster than Verstappen in the previous grand prix on both Friday and Saturday, one might imagine that Leclerc would be feeling confident heading into the race after being the fastest on both days. However, with two Red Bulls directly behind him and no teammate in sight, Leclerc knows he has his job cut out for him.
"I believe it will be difficult, as the Red Bull drivers appeared to be extremely quick in their race simulations yesterday," commented Leclerc. "We performed well in Austria; we suffered a bit more yesterday, but I believe we made a considerable improvement in our performance since then. Hopefully, tomorrow's race will reflect this."
According to Sainz, this may be his finest weekend start of the entire season. Typically, this would increase the likelihood of a return, similar to what Leclerc accomplished in Canada. But Sainz is skeptical of a straightforward climb through the ranks.
"[There is] a lot of tailwind on the two main back straights, which is where overtaking occurs," he stated. "This means that the DRS effect and the tow are low since the wind is pushing you." Therefore, it is difficult to persevere. Also, tire overheating when following another vehicle is difficult, but I will do my best."
Red Bull may have numerical superiority at the front of the field, but Verstappen acknowledges that Ferrari appear to have some innate advantages at Paul Ricard.
Verstappen stated, "I believe we need to improve our high-speed performance overall." "I believe that no matter what wing we put on the car, we have always struggled a bit compared to Ferrari at high speeds.
"The fact that the Ferraris are on pole position again demonstrates that they have a terrific car, and I anticipate that they will be very fast again." It is nice to have Checo on board, and we are fast on the straights, so let us see what we can accomplish."
Behind Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez come Lewis Hamilton and George Russell's Mercedes, which are separated by Lando Norris's McLaren. Norris was ecstatic to find himself alongside the third-best vehicle on the grid, but he believed the result was more indicative of Mercedes than McLaren.
"I do not think it is 'overperforming,' but we just performed exceptionally well today, whereas they likely underperformed, and I anticipate that tomorrow they will be a bit ahead as normal," Norris said. I wish I could say we can defeat them, and I will try my best to do so.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff concurred with Norris' assessment, stating, "Overall, our package is simply not quick enough, as is evident."
"We have been experimenting with the height of the rear wing and the temperature of the tires. Once we put on the fresh tyres in Q3, we knew we would be third-fastest, as we have been all season, and that is not good enough for us."
Regarding the type of race that could occur on Sunday, it all boils down to temperature and tires.
Due to the asphalt's exposure to the intense heat of the summer sun, track temperatures may be the highest drivers will encounter all season. Obviously, this places tire management at the forefront of pit wall and cockpit issues.
"It will be a struggle for everyone," said Fernando Alonso, the seventh-place starter. "Tires struggle greatly with the temperature in these lengthy corners, overheating, graining, everything. Therefore, it will be a struggle.
According to Pirelli's research, the fastest route to the checkered flag consists of a single stop from mediums to hards. Alonso notes, however, that this year's modification to the pit lane exit has increased pit time loss, which might have a significant impact on Sunday's plans.
"The longest pit lane in the championship is approximately 27 to 28 seconds," Alonso stated. "Therefore, a single pause is optimal if you can avoid a second 27-second loss. However, I do not know if it will be doable."
Leclerc's top priority will be to avoid the graining issues that plagued Ferrari in earlier races and allowed Verstappen to chase him down and pass him for the lead of the race on track, assuming Leclerc maintains the lead off the line – no certainty given the reasonable length of the run to turn one, despite Ferrari's improved clutch. But as Pirelli's Mario Isola points out, Leclerc does have a strategic advantage.
Isola stated that Leclerc is the only front-runner with one set of hard and two sets of medium tyres remaining for the race. The majority of his direct competitors have two sets of hards and only one pair of mediums. Ferrari appears to have positioned themselves to capitalize on the tire performance advantage they have held over Red Bull in past races.
Ferrari and Red Bull's performance edge over the rest of the field indicates that the front-runners will not have to worry about the middle runners compromising their plans. Even if Russell passes Norris early in the race, the top three will drive away and leave the Mercedes in the dust, based on their performance in practice. By the time the leaders consider pausing, a natural window of clear air may have formed, allowing them the ideal opportunity to stop and return to the circuit uninterrupted.
Red Bull have the potential to split strategies to attack Leclerc if he maintains the lead at the start if Sainz remains in the rear of the field for at least the first portion of the race. If both Verstappen and Perez are able to keep pace with the Ferrari, which is unlikely given the gap between the two Red Bull drivers in practice, they can attack Leclerc by employing opposing strategies to put pressure on Ferrari.
Red Bull's lower wing angles provide them a speed advantage on the straights, but it remains to be seen if this will be at the expense of tyre longevity. The long runs on Friday were insufficient to produce clear results.
After perceived strategy failures in Monaco and Silverstone strengthened Ferrari's detractors, Sainz was eager to utilize the Scuderia's qualifying tactics to demonstrate that they are more savvy than is often believed. But regardless of what Ferrari has planned for Sunday's race, if they can overcome the heat and Red Bull's numerical advantage to maintain Leclerc ahead at the finish line, it would demonstrate that they have a real possibility of propelling Leclerc back to the top of the championship standings.