September 27, 2022

Charles Leclerc reignited his title hopes as he took his first victory in eight raced at the Austrian Grand Prix.

The Monegasque driver saw his title lead extinguished and Max Verstappen soar off to the distance after a disastrous run of races. His win at the Red Bull Ring though has seen him claw the gap down to 38 points.

This weekend’s French Grand Prix offers him another opportunity to chip away at Verstappen’s title lead, though Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes might have something to say about the outcome at Paul Richard.

Sportsmail breaks down seven things to look out for at the French Grand Prix…

Charles Leclerc ended a horrible run of results with his third victory of the season in Austria

Lewis Hamilton threatens to challenge Leclerc and Max Verstappen at the French Grand Prix

VERSTAPPEN SEEKS RETURN TO WINNING WAYS 

After a tough start to the season, Max Verstappen was able to put distance between himself and his competition with six wins in eight races.

A disappointing seventh place in Silverstone was followed by second at an Austrian Grand Prix, where Leclerc had enough pace to overtake the Dutchman three times during the race.

There’s still a 38 point gap at the top to his nearest challenger Leclerc, but the Dutchman will be determined to stop Ferrari making it three wins in a row – a result that would give the Scuderia confidence of making a comeback and topping Verstappen and Red Bull to the title.

The general consensus is that Red Bull seem to slightly have the upper hand in pace, but without poor strategy calls and mechanical unreliability, Leclerc might well have been close to or even ahead of Verstappen in the title fight at this stage.

Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton to win last year’s race at Le Castellet, and a repeat result this weekend could be crucial to stop the tide of momentum swinging into Ferrari’s favour. 

Max Verstappen hopes to stop the momentum in the title fight swinging into Ferrari’s favour

FERRARI ON FORM BUT LOOK FRAIL

Victories for Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc over the past two races were just what was needed at Ferrari after a tricky run of races.

At the Red Bull Ring, Ferrari were seemingly able to match Red Bull’s straight-line speed, maintain their advantage through the corners and look after their tyres better, showing a sign of progression. 

Despite the optimism off two victories there is still however a sense of uncertainty with Ferrari, as their reliability woes again cropped up in Austria.

Sainz looked on for a second place finish only for his engine to dramatically blow up, while Leclerc feared losing another victory after driving with a partially stuck throttle over the last ten laps of the race.

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The Spaniard’s penalty means he is likely to take on engine penalties which he could have to take this weekend which would put him on the backfoot.

Their latest reliability setback will offer concern to Leclerc who has already while in contention for the lead at both the Spanish and Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto admitted their issues are a ‘concern’ but is hopeful to bring in new elements as soon as possible that will address their problems.  

The Ferrari duo of Leclerc and Carlos Sainz look quick but reliability issues are a concern

Sainz looked good for second place before a dramatic engine blow-up at the Austrian GP

MERCEDES’ BEST TRACK YET THIS SEASON? 

Mercedes have been closing the gap to Red Bull and Ferrari in recent races, although they still seem to have a deficit to their biggest rivals.

The Austrian Grand Prix showed they still have work to do as Lewis Hamilton and George Russell finished over 40 seconds behind race-winner Leclerc – albeit they both had their issues over the weekend including crashes in qualifying.

The smooth Paul Ricard circuit is one which should suit the Mercedes cars. They have also had issues with getting heat into their tyres, though the expected blistering warm conditions in France should help with that.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after Austria that he expects Mercedes to challenge this weekend, and the Silver Arrows will be benefitted by new developments on the car.

Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff said he is hoping his team will return to the podium, but looking at Hamilton’s pace on similarly smooth tracks at Barcelona and Silverstone, then it is possible they could be on for something greater on Sunday.

With Russell 80 points off Verstappen and Hamilton one-shy of 100 behind his title rival last year, the title might be off the cards. But if they continue their current progress, they will be challenging regularly for wins by the end of the season.  

Hamilton has three podiums on the bounce and is closing the gap in pace to his rivals

George Russell will be hopeful of collecting his first victories with Mercedes’ improvements

SCHUMACHER GOES FOR THREE IN A ROW 

Mick Schumacher had to wait 31 races to pick up his first points in Formula One and now he is on the verge of making it three scoring finishes in a row.

The son of seven-time world champion Michael followed off his first points with an eighth place at Silverstone, with an even more impressive sixth at the Austrian Grand Prix.

Schumacher drove the best race of his career in a effort which was recognised by those watching, as he was awarded Driver of the Day. 

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Morale is very high at the Haas team, with the more experienced Kevin Magnussen also finishing in the points over the last two races.

Schumacher, Magnussen and Haas will be making to look it three for three at Paul Richard, ahead of a significant race next week in Hungary.

Haas haven’t been bringing upgrades to races in recent times, but a significant upgraded package is due to arrive at the Hungaroring. 

Mick Schumacher had a long wait for points but now he is looking to make it three top ten finishes on the trot

Haas, the bottom team on the grid last season, have shown big improvement this season

TRACK LIMIT TROUBLES

The new zero-tolerance approach to track limits introduced at the start of the season, had its biggest impact by far during the last race weekend.

A total of 90 track limit infringements were made over the three competitive sessions of the weekend, with four drivers handed time penalties for abusing the confines of the course too many times in the race on Sunday.

Max Verstappen described the trigger-happy stewards as a ‘joke’ while Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said he feared bigger problems would arise in Paul Richard.

With barely a blade of grass, a chunk of gravel and surrounded by asphalt, the temptation to run as close to the white lines to maximise exit speed will be high as anywhere on the Formula One calendar.

An additional issue is that drivers at Paul Richard will have to follow very direct instructions about how to rejoin the circuit should they miss either turns two or four, or the chicane after the long Mistral Straight. 

What won’t help the drivers is the confusing layout and the painful to look at lines that surround the circuit.

Haas driver Mick Schumacher said: ‘Definitely it’s a track that is quite interesting. It can be confusing at times due to all the different lines, so it’s not just viewers that get confused, it can also be the drivers too.’

Lando Norris was one of four drivers to receive penalties for abusing track limits in Austria

There could be more problems in France with the circuit surrounded by run-off areas

ISSUES WITH STEWARDS 

There seems to be a lot more angst in recent races at drivers towards the race stewards and directors Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas.

The pair replaced Michael Masi after the controversy that surrounded the title finale in Abu Dhabi, but the issue of consistency in decisions made continues to rumble on in the sport. 

In Austria, Alex Albon got a five-second penalty for forcing Lando Norris off track which led to the Williams driver saying he felt the FIA stewards were ‘moving the goalposts’ after little intervention in similar incidents during the prior British Grand Prix.

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Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel was handed a €25,000 for leaving the drivers’ meeting early. Sky Sports pit-lane reporter Ted Kravitz said Vettel had grown frustrated after an argument that lasted 20 minutes between several drivers about standards during races.

Max Verstappen said stewards needed to stop being so ‘stubborn’ after the amount of track violations, while George Russell felt they needed to work closer with drivers to get everyone ‘on the same page’ after he was handed a five-second penalty for forcing Sergio Perez off track. 

The controversy surrounding recent stewarding decisions has raised the question in the paddock over whether the FIA need to revert back to just one race director.

It would feel near impossible for drivers to be happy over every decision but it’s clear that discontent has been growing among the drivers for some time over their believed lack of consistency in decisions – something to keep an eye out on this weekend. 

Alex Albon and George Russell were unhappy with decisions that went against them last race

Sebastian Vettel received a hefty fine for leaving the drivers’ meeting early following a ’20 minute argument’ involving some on the grid over driving standards in recent races

ALPINE HOPE FOR BIG RESULT ON HOME SOIL 

The most impressive team outside the ‘big three’ in recent races has been the Alpine with drivers Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon.

The French outfit have been gradually closing the gap on McLaren for fourth place in the constructors’ championships with both drivers getting strong results.

They hold an advantage over McLaren, due to Daniel Ricciardo’s struggles to get into the top ten – with just three point finishes all season.

Ocon has been quietly going about his job with eight point finishes this season and his best result this campaign to date last time out with fifth in Austria.

Two-time champion Alonso was unlucky in Austria as he was relegated to the back of the grid on Sunday after a mechanical problem ended his sprint-race before it began on the Saturday.

He still managed to finish in tenth, making it six consecutive races in the points in what has been a season riddled with bad luck for the Spaniard.

The contract for the French Grand Prix expires this year, meaning it’s uncertain they will be back on home soil next season.

Alpine are improving all the time and will be hoping for a strong result this weekend – and they just need to outscore McLaren to move up to fourth in the constructors’ championship.

Alpine just need to outscore McLaren this weekend to move up to fourth in the constructors’