Max Verstappen and Red Bull laid down the gauntlet in the title race with victory at the French Grand Prix.

It took the fight to Mercedes at a circuit the reigning world champions had been unbeaten at and won, pulling off a brilliant strategy that caught its main rival napping. 

By pouncing on a Mercedes error, Red Bull and Verstappen fought back to claim an important win following an epic battle. 

For the first time since the V6 hybrid era began in 2014, Red Bull has claimed three victories on the bounce. But does its Paul Ricard triumph mark a turning point in the 2021 title race?

Here are the views of our F1 writers…

Resurgent Red Bull piling the pressure on Mercedes

If it wasn’t already sweating following two bitterly disappointing lows in Monaco and Baku, Mercedes will certainly be feeling the heat in the title race now.

The hope arriving at Paul Ricard was that the nature of the more traditional circuit with its fast-flowing corners and lack of slow-speed sections would help Mercedes return to form. 

After all, this has traditionally been something of a Mercedes stronghold, with the German marquee dominating both the 2018 and 2019 editions of the race following its return to the F1 calendar. 

Yet Red Bull still held a clear one-lap advantage as Max Verstappen swept to pole position to set up his charge to victory. 

While on this occasion - unlike in Baku - Lewis Hamilton’s performance was faultless, he was let down by a strategic blunder from Mercedes, who were ultimately left in no man’s land thanks to Red Bull’s brilliant gamble to two-stop with Verstappen. 

Although Hamilton appeared to be faster than Verstappen in the race, he was powerless to prevent the Dutchman from breezing past on fresher tyres as he watched a potential victory slip away. 

Mercedes still cannot account for the time that Hamilton lost in the pits when Verstappen used a powerful undercut to jump him in the first stint, while both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas’ warnings that a two-stopper was the optimum strategy fell on deaf ears.

Mercedes isn’t currently operating at the levels it needs to if it is to successfully defend both championships this year. The team will leave France cursing another missed opportunity, one that has enabled Red Bull and Verstappen to scamper further clear. 

But most worrying of all for the Black Arrows is that Verstappen’s victory underlined that Red Bull now has a car that is ultra-competitive everywhere.

It is starting to look like both championships are Red Bull’s to lose.

Lewis Larkam

Only a fool would underestimate Mercedes

With the margins so tight at the front, it’s only natural supposed ‘mistakes’ are highlighted more than ever.

Hamilton looked well on his way to his third consecutive French Grand Prix victory when he inherited the lead on the opening lap, benefitting from a rare Verstappen mistake.

Mercedes could have responded better to the Verstappen undercut, although credit has to be given because the Dutchman gained around three seconds from his in-lap, pit stop and out lap, which ultimately proved the difference.

The two-stop strategy was a “ballsy” call by Red Bull - how often do you see the race leader surrendering track position? Very rarely.

Verstappen caught Hamilton with just under two laps remaining - on another day, the Dutchman could have lost more time behind Bottas and thus wouldn’t have had sufficient time left to catch the race leader.

Given the tight margins in F1 this year at the front, every decision is magnified and heightened, often exaggerated by criticising with hindsight.

It was only a handful of races ago where Mercedes was praised for its two-stop strategy which allowed Hamilton to beat Verstappen to the Spanish GP victory.

While it is fair to say Red Bull has been operationally superior in terms of strategic calls, pit stops and race delivery, Mercedes has shown in the past and even this season that it can hit back and combat serious opposition.

The main positive for Mercedes is that it has an incredibly fast car in race trim.

Hamilton and Bottas were able to stay within DRS range of Verstappen with ease until Red Bull decided to switch him to a two-stopper.

Street circuits aside, at traditional track venues Mercedes has at worse had an equal car in race trim and while it still lacks performance over one lap, the reigning world champions are still a serious threat when the points are handed out.

Bottas looked back on form at the Circuit Paul Ricard and given how well Perez is now performing at Red Bull, Hamilton’s chances of an eighth title will rely on the Finn remaining motivated and performing at his best to offer sufficient support against the Red Bull duo.

Mercedes is seven-time champions for a reason - it’s too early to rule it out when there are still 15 races to go.

Connor McDonagh 

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