Sebastian Vettel’s title aspirations were dealt a blow at the Paul Ricard circuit when he tangled with Valtteri Bottas at the first corner of the Grand Prix, costing himself between eight and 15 points, but with championships won and lost on such fine margins, will Ferrari be putting pressure on their leader to address start-related errors which also proved costly last year.
Starting in France with a front-row lockout, the Mercedes cars were always likely to enter the first corner with at least one car in the lead, despite third-placed Vettel starting on the softer tyres.
Vettel made perfect use of the softest available compound – and a slipstream from the lead Mercedes – by challenging both cars into turn one.
However, Vettel locked up and understeered into Bottas at the first corner.
After additional contact with Haas’ Romain Grosjean, Vettel limped back to the pits minus a front wing, whilst Bottas sustained a puncture and floor damage.
From there, Vettel and Bottas spent the remainder of the race in ‘damage limitation’ mode, attempting to claw back as many points as possible whilst Hamilton took a straightforward victory.
Ferrari’s team principal Maurizio Arrivabene was quick to say after the race that the French Grand Prix was winnable. Most analysts think that Mercedes with the new version of its engine and aerodynamic profile of the car, was slightly superior at Paul Ricard. Especially in qualifying, which gives a chance to control the race.
One of Vettel’s few opportunities to overtake the Mercedes cars was in the opening laps of the race, where the Ferrari would’ve ‘switched on’ the ultrasoft tyres quicker than Mercedes’ supersofts.
If Ferrari genuinely had race-winning pace, then perhaps Vettel knew that his chances would increase dramatically if he could pass at least one of the Mercedes on the first lap. Then again he would be alone against two Mercedes and unable to cover both on race strategy at the stops, after Kimi Raikkonen again made a mistake in Q3 and left Vettel alone at the front.
Either way, Vettel’s start was another example of over-eagerness that has dogged his Ferrari championship campaigns.
Vettel famously scuppered his 2017 championship challenge when, from pole position, he came together with both Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen at the Singapore Grand Prix, which allowed Hamilton to win the race and extend his lead in the standings from three to twenty-eight points.
Similarly in Baku 2018, although he wasn’t dealing with a standing start, Vettel once again made a costly error when attempting a pass on Bottas on the safety car restart; he locked up, ran wide, flat-spotted his tyre and was demoted to fifth, which became fourth when Bottas retired with a penultimate-lap puncture.
With three ‘start’ incidents in fifteen races, could it be argued that Vettel needs to reassess his approach?
Too close for comfort; Is Vettel’s incident further evidence of Formula One’s aerodynamics problem?
Not for the first time this season, a chasing car wasn’t helped by the sudden loss of downforce that occurs when one Formula One car follow another very closely.
With the lead car drastically disturbing the air flow for the chasing car, it results in a reduction of downforce.
This therefore reduces the amount of force being transferred through the car to the tyres, and if there is less load on the front tyres, a driver is more likely to lock a wheel under braking. This lock-up means the car will not slow down as quickly.
If a driver is following another car very closely and locks a wheel, then it increases the chances of there being a collision.
We’ve already seen incidents this season where a lack of downforce hasn’t helped prevent a collision. Along with Vettel’s collision into Bottas, the Red Bull drivers were eliminated in Baku when Ricciardo and Verstappen were racing in close quarters.
Similarly, whilst Romain Grosjean’s opening lap spin-to-crash in Barcelona was his error, he would’ve been unaided in his attempts to recover the spin by the air flow disturbances from the car ahead.
The famous phrase says that “the race isn’t won at the first corner”, but given how difficult it is for cars to overtake on many of the circuits, does turn one become the one golden chance to pass the car in front?
All images: Motorsport Images
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