MORE controversy trails the Grand Prix circuit as Sebastian Vettel suffers a trifling penalty for causing chaos. PETER COSTER reports:
THE FRENCH Grand Prix on Sunday, the first at the Paul Ricard circuit for 10 years, was also the first of a triple-header in Europe.
This is the first time this has happened in Formula One, with races in Austria and Britain over the next two weeks.
The world’s first Grand Prix was held in France in 1906 with another 44 years before the races counted towards the first world championship.
The French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit on Sunday would likely have finished in a one-two finish for Mercedes had Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel not run into the back of Valtteri Bottas at the first corner.
Vettel stormed back from the back of the field to finish fifth after coming in for a new wing. Bottas finished seventh after limping back to the pits with the remnants of a rear tyre flapping from a puncture.
The Ferrari driver was given a five-second penalty after causing widespread chaos, but none of this concerned Lewis Hamilton who led from start to finish.
What it did prove was the clear superiority of Mercedes and Ferrari power. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen avoided the mayhem by taking a short-cut across a circuit with more tarmac on the run-off areas than the runways on an international airport.
This should have resulted in a penalty, but the stewards decided he had nowhere else to go.
The stewards were just as lenient with Vettel, who should have been given a five-second stop-and-go penalty in the pits and not just five seconds added to his race time.
But what can you expect when Vettel was allowed to rejoin the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park ahead of race leader Lewis Hamilton after diving into the pits to change tyres.
Vettel was second when the field was slowed under the Virtual Safety Car and should have been told to give up first place to Hamilton when he found himself at the head of the field.
Then came the Keystone Cops blunder at the Canadian Grand Prix when the chequered flag was waved a lap too early.
Back in France, Daniel Ricciardo started fifth on the grid behind Verstappen and finished fourth after Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen passed him to take third place when Ricciardo picked up debris in his front wing towards the end of the race.
The season is likely to end in much the same finishing order with Mercedes and Ferrari clearly the class of the field.
Red Bull will change from Renault to Honda engines next year and while this may see Verstappen struggling to stay at the front of the grid, Ricciardo will have almost certainly moved to another team.
The Australian driver is out of contract at the end of the season and is looking for a car that will win him the world championship.
Bottas will be out of contract at Mercedes and Raikkonen will be out of contract at Ferrari and may retire as the oldest driver in F1. “The Iceman” will turn 39 before the end of the season.
Ricciardo could go to either team, but the smart money is on Mercedes where Hamilton is also to sign a new contract.
That leaves the team more room to negotiate with Hamilton who is on the way to winning his fifth world championship and likely to insist on Ricciardo being restricted by team orders.
It has happened to Bottas who had to let Hamilton pass in last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix when the likeable Finnish driver had started on pole.
“As a racing driver it’s the worst thing you want to hear, but that’s life,” said Bottas after coming home third. “I understand the team completely on that. They had the opportunity at the end of the day to get some extra points.”
As it turned out, Vettel won the race. The German is on a $50 million-a-year contract at Ferrari and unlikely to accept Ricciardo as an equal.
A reported offer of $20 million a year to Ricciardo by McLaren became even less attractive to the Australian driver after Sunday’s race.
A frustrated Fernando Alonso retired, saying he had “no brakes” and “no tyres” and was “out of the points” and ,“I don’t care too much.”
McLaren changed from Honda power to Renault this year in the hope of climbing back up the grid.
This has done little to help the fortunes of the team that carries the name of the great New Zealand driver, Bruce McLaren, killed in a testing accident at Goodwood in 1970.
Why would Ricciardo go to this troubled team when a seat at Mercedes or Ferrari could bring him the world championship he is capable of winning?
Next week’s race is at Austria’s former Osterreichring, renamed the Red Bull Ring after being bought by Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz.
The Austrian billionaire would be happy with a Ricciardo win, delighted with a Verstappen victory and overjoyed with a Red Bull one-two, with the Dutch driver on the top of the podium.
As with Australian driver Mark Webber at Red Bull in the years with Sebastian Vettel, the 20-year-old Dutch driver is given the benefit of the doubt.
Verstappen is undoubtedly fast and now furious at the reaction of the media and other drivers to his aggressive driving style.
After crashing out in Baku in Azerbaijan when he blocked Ricciardo, Verstappen has finished three of the past four races on the podium.
He was ninth at Monaco after missing qualifying following a crash in practice and has said he has ready to headbutt the next journalist who questions his crash-or-crash-through approach, even if said with a wry smile.
All of these events have left Ricciardo in demand as a driver, the “king of the marketplace,” as described by Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, but facing what could be a driver “closed-shop” at Mercedes and Ferrari.
Nevertheless, Mercedes and Ferrari want the “best overtaker” on the grid, with Mercedes the likely winner.
Before leaving the French Grand Prix, one question deserves at least an attempt at an answer.
Why was a huge red gorilla standing alongside the podium and why were the trophies given to drivers a smaller version of the ape holding up a tyre?
It might rate as the weirdest trophy to be presented in a sometimes bizarre sport when you consider the answer only adds to the puzzle.
The gorilla is a signature sculpture of the French artist Richard Orlinski, who has a fascination with F1 racing, as well as the ape figure that resembles King Kong.
It has something to do with the sculptor’s “wild man” concept of man embodying beast, or is it beast embodying man? The French treat such questions with a gallic shrug.
At least the tyre being held up by the gorilla was a Pirelli, the Italian company supplying tyres to Formula One.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.