Vive la France!

Vive la France! 01

Drink driving
The Paul Ricard circuit in France is proof that under certain circumstances, drinking and driving do actually mix. The circuit was built in 1969 by the eponymous pastis magnate, who didn’t let his enthusiasm for strong liquor stand in the way of his passion for cars.

Having opened in 1970, as what was then a state-of-the-art facility, it then hosted the first of its 15 grands prix in 1971. The most of recent of those, of course, was only last year, when Paul Ricard returned to the calendar following a 28-year absence.

In the intervening time, the venue was re-invented as a high-technology test track (with around 167 different potential configurations) owned by a certain Bernie Ecclestone. Such was the former F1 ringmaster’s attention to detail that he even imported grass from his Biggin Hill airfield in England for the Paul Ricard pitlane, which he clearly felt was superior to the local French grass.

And then, along with the French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard returned as a race venue last year. A lot of the infrastructure was changed to meet the modern demands of F1, although many characteristics of the track remained familiar. The traffic jams to get into the track, for example. And also one of the longest straights seen in Formula 1.

Vive la France! 02

Where the wind blows
The Mistral Straight, named after the famous wind that regularly pummels the south of France, was 1.8 kilometres long In its original form, contributing to what were some of the fastest top speeds of the time. That straight still lives on now, although it’s intersected by a chicane to slow everything down. There’s also some new asphalt for this year, although it’s actually very similar to the asphalt that was already laid for the race last year, so there shouldn’t be many big differences. The weather, too, is expected be similar to last year: hot. What else would you expect from the Cote d’Azur at the end of June?

When it comes to tyres, warm weather accelerates degradation of course, so it’s going to be important to look after them. But from what we’ve seen so far this year, even in the highest temperatures, the tyres are hanging on well, with no blistering or anything like that.

Even last year, there was only one pit stop for the French Grand Prix winner, although this was helped by an early safety car after Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas came together after the start. This year, the tyre nomination is a little more conservative than it was in 2018, so it should be flat-out from start to finish. That means a top speed of around 340kph and an average lap speed of around 233kph, based on last year’s qualifying data.

The 2019 cars have been up to a second quicker than last year’s equivalents (despite the fact they are heavier) depending on the track, so expect to see last year’s benchmarks beaten. A qualifying time below 90 seconds is likely: Lewis Hamilton’s pole last year was 1m30.029s. 

Pits and pastis
One thing that’s new for this year – along with a better traffic management plan for spectators – is a brand new pit lane entry, which now starts just before the final corner. It’s been moved for safety reasons and will slightly add to the overall time taken for a pit stop: all the more reason to aim for a one-stopper (which the teams will target anyway). Overtaking isn’t especially easy at Paul Ricard, so track position is king, on what might be the most picturesque circuit on the calendar. It’s as French as a bottle of pastis yet this race is again sponsored by Pirelli. And we’ll certainly raise a glass of Ricard to that. 

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