Here's what to look out for in Formula 1's 2021 French Grand Prix...

The Verstappen-Hamilton battle continues

Just four points separate Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at the top of the drivers’ championship going into this afternoon’s French Grand Prix. 

We’ve seen throughout this season already, the title protagonists are on another level when it comes to race day performances and it’s likely the battle for the win at Le Castellet will be between these two.

The start

As always the race start is the best opportunity to gain the upper hand in a grand prix.

This is an area Verstappen has excelled in up against Hamilton in 2021. At Imola, Verstappen powered past his teammate Sergio Perez and then held the high ground into the opening sequence of corners, forcing Hamilton over the kerbs, leaving him with front wing damage.

Hamilton managed to maintain second off the start at Portimao but soon lost out to Verstappen at the Safety Car restart. 

It was deja vu in Barcelona as Verstappen again was the braver of the pair, lunging late past Hamilton into Turn 1 - leaving the Mercedes driver with no choice but to relinquish the position.

With Red Bull seemingly holding the advantage over Mercedes, Hamilton cannot afford to be timid against his main title rival.

Hamilton consistently had Sebastian Vettel’s number wheel-to-wheel in 2017 and 2018, and the seven-time champion needs to lay down a marker when he goes head-to-head with Verstappen. 

Verstappen’s straight-line speed advantage

Another string to Red Bull’s bow is its impressive straight-line speed advantage. As confirmed by team boss Christian Horner, Red Bull is running a lower downforce configuration relative to Mercedes and thus is giving them extra speed on the straights - benefitting in sector two, while still maintaining good speed in the corners.

“We’ve taken a bit of the downforce out of the car - you can probably see by the size of the rear wing between us and Mercedes,” Horner told Sky Sports F1 after qualifying. “We’re using less energy in sector two so we are going faster down the straight because we have less resistance there but we are still managing to do a very good time in sector three.”

Often Mercedes has enjoyed an advantage with its power unit meaning Hamilton could breeze past his rivals - this simply won’t be the case on Sunday.

Overtaking at the Circuit Paul Ricard has historically been difficult, with it being tricky to follow another car through Turn 6, into Turn 7 and onto the Mistral straight.

Strategy

The whole of the top ten is set to start on the medium tyre. Pirelli expects it to be a simple medium to hard strategy.

With Bottas and Perez in play, it’s unlikely either Hamilton or Verstappen will be able to pull a surprise second pit stop as we saw in Barcelona with Mercedes.

The role of the number twos 

Bottas and Perez did what was expected of them in qualifying as the pair are set to start just behind their teammates in third and fourth place.

We saw in Bahrain and Barcelona how Mercedes could outmanoeuvre Verstappen by having two cars in the mix. Similarly, Perez defended brilliantly from Hamilton to ensure his Dutch teammate had a comfortable lead in Baku.

The key for both ‘number two’ drivers is to make a good start and from then on their teams can use them strategically, either undercut to force an early stop or simply do the opposite.

Of course, both drivers will have aspirations of winning the race themselves but at the end of the day, Verstappen and Hamilton will be prioritised. 

Perez is starting from fourth and he can’t afford a poor start as he did at Portimao, where he dropped behind Norris and was detached from the leading trio.

Will Ferrari have the race pace? 

Ferrari once again had the advantage over McLaren in qualifying as F1’s two heavyweights continue to duel it out for third in the constructors’ championship.

Just two points separate the two teams with the level of performance ebbing and flowing depending on which circuit we race at.

Despite Ferrari’s struggles with the front-end of its car, Carlos Sainz managed to qualify fifth, with Charles Leclerc in seventh.

Ferrari has often fared better over one lap, while it has struggled with tyre management on race day.

Leclerc has no concerns there will be a repeat of Baku where he dropped behind Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly having started on pole position.

“No, it is not [a concern],” Leclerc said.“ Let’s see about the first stint, as I was not particularly happy with my lap in Q2 with what will be my starting set, so hopefully the tyres are not too bad.”

McLaren remains confident if conditions are hot like they were in Friday practice, it will be able to manage its tyres better than Ferrari.

“If we see temperatures like yesterday, I think you’ll get a lot of this, a lot of overheating, potentially blistering,” Ricciardo added. “I don’t think there was blistering yesterday. But it could open up…but I hear it is going to be stormy tomorrow.”

“So maybe yesterday was a little bit of an anomaly with the temperature. We have some good things to keep the tires under control. Hopefully everyone else suffers.”

This one could go either way...