Sebastian Vettel, centre, walks the Paul Ricard circuit with two of his crew ahead of the Franch Grand Prix, a Thursday ritual which is much more important this time as Vettel has never raced there before. Picture: Claude Paris / AP

Le Castellet, France - A leap into the unknown is a scary prospect for Formula One teams obsessed with data and planning, but it should at least prompt more excitement and drama when the French Grand Prix returns to the calender on Sunday.

France last hosted an F1 race in 2008 but that was at Magny-Cours, meaning even the more experienced of current drivers, such as world champion Lewis Hamilton, have never raced in a Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, near Marseille. It last hosted an elite race 28 years ago. And Formula One veterans in the garage or paddock who do remember the 1990 race at Paul Ricard will not be much help to the teams either given the layout has changed considerably since then.

The layout of the Paul Ricard circuit as it is now

"France should be an interesting race," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. "We don't often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge."

Mercedes driver Hamilton trails Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel by just one point after Vettel grabbed the lead by winning in Canada last time out. Vettel has three wins so far this season compared to two for Hamilton and two for Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo, suggesting this could be one of the closest and most dramatic F1 campaigns in years. France is quickly followed by races in Austria and Britain, making this section of the season crucial.

Wolff added: "The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks - which is precisely what we're setting out to do."


Hamilton was fifth in Montreal while Red Bull's Max Verstappen put a series of crash-strewn races behind him to come home third and show he is a class driver when he limits the risks. Quite how the Dutch 20-year-old will deal with a new track remains to be seen as Red Bull try to get the most out of their Renault engine before switching to Honda from 2019.

"From what I have seen," Verstappen said, "it is a power track with long straights but there are still a few corners in there where we can make a difference, it's all a bit unknown, so we will have to see when we get there.


Another driver on somewhat of a high is Fernando Alonso, albeit not because of his faltering McLaren. The former double F1 world champion won the Le Mans 24-hour race on Sunday and is looking forward to another fresh challenge in France.

"It's not often we get to drive on new tracks," he said, "or tracks that are new for most of us but already have a strong legacy behind them, so after my Le Mans experience it's great to be staying in France and heading to Paul Ricard. Winning the Le Mans 24 hours still feels like a dream and it was an incredible week. It's finally sinking in now and I'm already looking forward to getting back in my car and going racing again."