The 2019 Formula One season is just over a third of the way finished, but at this point, it is difficult to imagine anyone but Lewis Hamilton winning the title. The five-time world champion is running away from the rest of the pack: 36 points clear of his teammate Valtteri Bottas at the top of the leaderboard, while third-placed Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel is 76 points back. Bottas, who showed sparks of pace by winning in Australia and Azerbaijan, has looked slow of late, and was no match for Hamilton at the Circuit Paul Ricard this past weekend. Hamilton took pole in France, about three tenths quicker than Bottas, and followed it up with a win on Sunday, an impressive 18 seconds ahead of his Finnish teammate. With Vettel so far behind in the championship and his spirit seemingly broken after a rough start to the season and the devastating penalty in Canada that stripped him of a win, Bottas is the only realistic contender to Hamilton, and even that seems like a long shot.
Hamilton and Mercedes appear to be in another league, and the French Grand Prix provided little in the way of excitement among the top five drivers. While Hamilton was unstoppable up front, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was catching Bottas in the closing stages, but ultimately ran out of time. Max Verstappen in the Red Bull had a lonely race in fourth, and Vettel slowly worked his way from seventh to fifth, but still finished a distant 62 seconds behind Hamilton.
The race up front was a total snoozefest, and while many fans complained that the race as a whole was boring, they clearly weren’t watching the midfield, which continued to provide entertainment. Battles raged throughout—the McLarens swarmed the top teams at the start and Carlos Sainz Jr. challenged Verstappen throughout the opening lap. Antonio Giovanazzi’s Alfa Romeo slid down the order from tenth, the punishment for having to start the race on the soft tires after using them to reach the third qualifying session, and his descent provided a fair amount of passing in the opening laps. Additionally, tire struggles for Haas’ Kevin Magnussen added some action to the bottom ten. The best midfield battle came on the final lap—a four-way scrap between the ailing McLaren of Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo’s Renault, Kimi Raikkonen in the other Alfa Romeo, and Nico Hulkenberg in the second Renault. However, with the backlash from the controversial penalty incurred by Vettel in Canada still lingering over the world of F1, this skirmish simply added more fuel to the fire.
Norris had been driving a superb race in seventh, but was contending with a major hydraulics issue and had been caught by Ricciardo. Hulkenberg was on the gearbox of Raikkonen, and soon both had joined Ricciardo in trying to find a way past Norris’ crippled car. Ricciardo attempted a move around the outside at the Mistral Chicane but carried too much speed into the corner and ran wide over the curbs. As he veered back on track he pushed Norris off, dropping the McLaren driver to tenth. Meanwhile, Raikkonen took advantage of Ricciardo’s mistake and slipped ahead, but Ricciardo got into the slipstream down the next straight. Raikkonen defended the inside line but instead of switching to the outside Ricciardo stubbornly tried to stick to the inside—he ended up getting past Raikkonen, but not without putting all four wheels across the white line.
After the race Ricciardo received two five second time penalties, dropping him out of the points. Unlike Vettel’s penalty in Canada, Ricciardo’s was a cut-and-dried case—he had clearly joined the track in an unsafe manner that forced Norris off and then had undoubtedly left the track to pass Raikkonen. Nonetheless, the Ricciardo incident reignited the debate on whether the FIA should apply the rules to a T or allow for some leeway to maintain the spirit of racing. The four-way fight for seventh was the most exciting moment of the race, but the knowledge that one if not two penalties were undeniably imminent took away from some of the drama. Fewer tracks feature grass or gravel run-offs that truly penalize drivers for running wide, and as a result we have entered an era full of retroactive punishment which not only dilutes the spectacle but also makes drivers warier of going for a late move. Additionally, drivers and teams constantly report minor incidents to the stewards hoping for a penalty for their competitors, and the looming potential of a penalty for the other driver has therefore lessened the incentive to complete the pass on-track.
Another incident—Racing Point’s Sergio Perez was handed a five second penalty for gaining an advantage on the opening lap—also factored into this debate. As is typical on the first lap, the field had bunched up, so when Perez locked up his front-left tire, he took to the run-off to avoid a collision with the pack ahead. He followed the proper procedure, driving all the way left and around the bollard before rejoining the track, but despite taking the long way around he gained at least one position and was subsequently given a five second penalty. The penalty destroyed his chances at scoring points, and was a confusing implementation of the rules. Not only had Perez followed the correct procedure for rejoining the track, but the incident had occurred on the first lap, when the stewards tend to be more lenient. Perhaps they wanted to be stricter after the massive amounts of corner-cutting that occurred on lap one in France last year, but Perez seemed to do nothing wrong. He had taken the correct path around the bollard and rejoined in a safe manner, and drivers are not permitted to stop at that bollard either. It was the first lap and there was, as usual, a bit of chaos, so what more could Perez have done to rejoin in the proper place?
Ricciardo’s penalties were certainly deserved, and were a far more obvious case than that of Vettel in the previous race. However, the effect that his penalties had on a close battle and the undeserved penalty given to Perez once again showed how F1 needs to reevaluate how it implements the rules, especially as other series like Formula E and IndyCar allow for a bit more contact while providing typically far more exciting races.