Ferrari will be kicking themselves, not for the first time this season, after another chance of a win melted away in the blistering heat of the French Riviera.
Charles Leclerc, leading the race, crashed out after an unforced error to hand title rival Max Verstappen a comfortable win, with Mercedes pair Lewis Hamilton and George Russell rounding off the podium.
The result leaves the Monegasque star 63 points behind Verstappen in the drivers’ standings – and with more than half the races this season completed it looks a tall order for Leclerc to make up the ground.
And there is plenty more to pick apart from the weekend’s racing, so Sportsmail looks at six things we learned from the French Grand Prix in Le Castellet…
Charles Leclerc is right to look at himself after a mistake cost him at the French Grand Prix
His title rival, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, went on to win at the Circuit Paul Ricard on Sunday
Charles Leclerc can’t – and doesn’t – just blame his team
On the idyllic Cote d’Azur in the south of France, the beautiful surroundings were more like the site of a nightmare for Leclerc and Ferrari.
Once again a bungle during the race cost the iconic Maranello constructor – but this time it was from an unexpected source. Generally, the team has been at fault this season rather than the driver.
Leclerc did push too hard at the Emilia-Romagna GP, dropping from third to sixth, but Ferrari have made two strategic mistakes and have suffered two engines failures while leading. Which has proved massively costly.
In Spain and Azerbaijan, his engine cut out while in first – ultimately causing him to start from the back in Canada, where Verstappen won, with Leclerc fifth.
Then at Monaco and Silverstone, odd decisions turned near nailed-on race wins into fourth-placed finishes.
Leading the race at the Circuit Paul Ricard on Sunday, and with a chance of coming back at Verstappen with fresher tyres after pitting, there was a real opportunity to reduce the title deficit to the Dutchman.
But in overcooking the quick Le Beausset corner at turn 11, Leclerc can look at no one except himself. And to be fair to the 24-year-old, he turned the spotlight on himself in frank fashion in the post-race press conferences.
He said: ‘If I keep doing those mistakes then it is pointless to be performing at a very high level. I will try and get better but this is not good.’
And: ‘I am performing at the highest level of my career. But if I keep doing those mistakes it is pointless. I am giving away too many points. Seven in Imola; 25 here because we were probably the strongest car on track… it is unacceptable.’
Of course, team principal Mattia Binotto defended his young charge when asked if he makes too many mistakes.
Monegasque Leclerc frankly discussed his error at turn 11 in press conferences after the race
He said: ‘It is a bit of an unfair judgement. It is the sort of thing that may happen when you are driving at the limit. There is no reason to blame him. We have always seen Charles reacts very strongly when he does mistakes.
‘I am pretty sure he will be back stronger… It was a genuine mistake and does not take off how good he is, he is a fantastic driver. Things are more complicated but not impossible and we will enjoy it more if we can turn it into a victory at the end.’
But the reality is after two wins in the first three races, Leclerc was 46 points ahead of Verstappen. That is now a 63-point deficit, a 109-point swing, in nine races. The title, if not mathematically gone, is fast disappearing over the top of a hill.
For Leclerc to admit he ‘does not deserve’ the championship if he keeps making similar mistakes is a conclusion that can be filed under: harsh but fair.
Carlos Sainz defends Ferrari but mistakes remain
It all looked so rosy for the red cars when Leclerc’s team-mate Carlos Sainz delivered him the crucial slipstream he needed to beat Verstappen to pole position on Saturday.
Spaniard Sainz, who could have had a decent run for pole himself had he not been given a grid penalty, ended fifth after making his way through the field from the back. But it could have been so much more.
Even after a slow pit stop and an unsafe release, which cost Sainz a five-second penalty, he was hot on the heels of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez in third.
Leclerc’s team-mate Carlos Sainz has defended Ferrari but another poor decision cost him
But even after Sainz said he would prefer to stay out, Ferrari called him in. He dropped from fourth to eighth, and although he eventually fought his way back up to P5, the chance to pass the Mexican was gone.
Binotto defended his team’s strategy but others in the paddock will have raised an eyebrow. And Sainz will be privately frustrated. Can Ferrari cut out the errors in Hungary this weekend in the last race before the sport’s summer break?
Performance anxiety at Mercedes despite podium
Somehow, ‘struggling Mercedes’ are just 44 points behind title-chasing Ferrari in the constructors’ championship, despite what was just their second top-two finish this season.
Certainly, results-wise, a two-three for Lewis Hamilton and George Russell is cause for optimism.
On Sunday, seven-time world champion Hamilton marked Mercedes’ best result of the season, and his fourth podium in a row.
And up next the F1 circus will travel to Hungaroring, where he has won eight times, and triumphed in 2009 after struggling early on in an uncompetitive (McLaren) car. Sound familiar?
But Mercedes will know they are a long way off challenging for race victories and titles. The Brit finished 10-and-a-half seconds behind Verstappen but, in terms of realistic prospects of winning, the two were worlds apart.
Despite an upgrade package before France, Hamilton was nearly 0.9secs behind pole-setter Leclerc’s pace in qualifying and, as a percentage, were slower than at any race since Azerbaijan in early June.
Boss Toto Wolff calls the car ‘not good enough’. After qualy, Hamilton said: ‘We were hoping to be a lot closer than we are. I was thinking we might be 0.2secs or something like that. But we’re a second off and I don’t have an answer for that.’
Things are not all hunky-dory at Mercedes despite a two-three finish on the French Riviera
Wolff added: ‘We brought quite a nice update package to Paul Ricard… and we had no performance. Like, no performance. We can’t figure out what went wrong.
‘If you would have told me we were ending up 1.2secs off (Russell’s deficit to pole), I would have said that’s not possible. It’s a bit of a slap in the face.’
A solid race on Sunday – which Hamilton called an ‘incredible performance’ in his historic 300th race – will have assuaged some of Mercedes’ concerns. But there’s still work to do.
But Lewis Hamilton enthused for next year
The 37-year-old’s £40million-a-year contract is set to run down at the end of the 2023 season, when he will be 39 and fast approaching his fifth decade.
The general expectation was he would retire at that point, hopefully having secured a record-breaking eighth world title.
But, enthused and optimistic after his second place on Sunday, Hamilton said: ‘I still feel fresh and as though I have got plenty of fuel left in the tank.’
Wolff said this weekend that he thinks his star man can reach 400 races, adding — perhaps tongue in cheek — that five or even 10 more years may be doable for the Brit.
But seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is sounding more enthused after a P2 finish
Asked about another 100 starts, Hamilton added: ‘That is a lot of races. First, I want to be grateful to get to this point. I am enjoying what I am doing and I am proud of working with this incredible group of people.
‘I want to get back to winning ways and that is going to take time, but I am sure we will sit down at some stage to talk about the future. I want to keep building. Am I enjoying it more? One hundred per cent.
‘The beginning of the year was confusing, if not miserable. Now we understand the car more. That has given us a much more enjoyable drive. We still lack performance in some areas but we are slowly getting there. It is about constantly chipping away.’
Red Bull rancour remains but Max Verstappen is cool
There is clearly still bitterness between Red Bull and Mercedes.
Last year’s hugely contentious season finale saw Verstappen benefit from inconsistent application of the rules to pass Hamilton on the last lap of the last race and pip him to the title, apparently orchestrated to enhance the entertainment value.
Mercedes were furious and threatened legal action, while Red Bull and boss Christian Horner, of course, were perfectly happy with how things happened despite plenty of bleating throughout the season about unfair treatment.
That acrimony continued this weekend, after the sport’s governing body, the FIA, intervened to limit the amount of ‘bouncing’ or ‘porpoising’ – an issue which has particularly affected Mercedes this year, while Red Bull have been just fine.
Red Bull, Ferrari, Alpha Tauri, Haas, Alfa Romeo and Williams are unhappy, with Horner insisting the change has happened because of Mercedes ‘lobbying’. Wolff countered that it is ‘not worth spending the time’ talking about those accusations.
Either way, it’s not a good look for the sport. Despite all of this, Verstappen is seemingly staying well clear of it – unlike last year! – and just doing what he does best, winning races.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner (centre) has continued the war of words with Mercedes
He’s not the best in qualifying, and he might not have the best car, but he just grinds out the wins and does the boring stuff really, really well. Verstappen seems impervious to high-profile mistakes like Leclerc’s and he is just ultra-consistent.
Verstappen said after the race: ‘We have still a lot of races to go and there will be a few tough races for us as well. We are halfway only. A lot of things can happen. I don’t really look at that lead. We still have a lot of work to do.
‘We are still behind over one lap. I don’t expect Hungary to be our best track because I do think we are lacking a bit of downforce compared to Ferrari and that’s what you need around there. We will face a few tough weekends as well.’
If he keeps it up, his second title, and what many will say is his first genuinely deserved title, will be on its way.
Veteran Fernando Alonso the best of the rest
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso, 40, remains a wonderful driver to watch.
The Spanish veteran is only 10th in the drivers’ standings and is unlikely to finish higher than eighth this year, but is still capable of moments of real quality.
The two-time world champion ended up sixth, heading up the midfield, in France after some more clever driving.
He zoomed past Russell and McLaren’s Lando Norris into fifth at the first corner, before holding off several pursuers with smart tyre management.
Alonso might be largely out of contention these days, but his performance on Saturday shows class is permanent.