The talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix

Fernando Alonso
Fernando Alonso

The Formula One circus this week heads to Le Castellet for the eighth round of the season in France. Defending champion Lewis Hamilton trails Sebastian Vettel by one point following the Ferrari driver's victory last time out in Montreal.

Here, Philip Duncan takes a look at the key talking points ahead of Sunday's race.

French GP returns to calendar

Following a decade-long absence, Formula One makes its return to France. Magny-Cours was the home of the French Grand Prix for several years, but Paul Ricard - a track F1 has not visited since 1990 - will be the host for France's comeback. France is one of the founding fathers of the sport, and is among the original rounds of the world championship which started in 1950. Paul Ricard is situated 25 miles to the east of Marseille in the south of France, and despite it not being a race venue for nearly 30 years, the circuit has been used by Pirelli for a number of tyre tests in recent seasons. After two processional races in Monaco and Montreal, F1 is in need of an exciting race, and hopefully the unpredictable variables that are synonymous with a new track can provide just that.

Will we see the 'real' Hamilton?

Aside from his impressive displays in Australia and Spain, F1 is waiting for Hamilton to turn up this year. Traditionally stronger in the second half of the season, the defending champion has made somewhat of a sluggish start. Hamilton may have had an old engine in Canada, and admitted he was relieved to have finished fifth, but team-mate Valtteri Bottas was also down on power, and he managed to get his car over the line in second. Hamilton also made unusual mistakes on the Saturday in Montreal to qualify only fourth at a track where he usually excels. Hamilton has not been poor this year, but he has not been at his best either. And with Vettel, who dominated in Canada, now one point clear in the championship race, the Brit can ill-afford another off-colour weekend.

Red Bull take Honda gamble

Red Bull confirmed on Tuesday that they will be powered by Honda engines next year. It is a gamble, but one Red Bull believe they must take to stand any chance of usurping Mercedes and Ferrari. It works financially for Red Bull, too. Indeed unlike their previous deal with Renault, the former world champions will not have to pay Honda for their engines. McLaren pinned the blame of their miserable run on Honda, and paid roughly £60million to sever ties with the Japanese manufacturer and switch to Renault power this term. But while McLaren have made little to no improvement, Honda have steadily impressed with Red Bull's sister team Toro Rosso this year, and Red Bull have seen enough positives to make the switch. Imagine the embarrassment at McLaren if Red Bull and Honda become a winning combination in 2019?

What next for Alonso?

Fernando Alonso completed the second leg in his pursuit of motorsport's Triple Crown last Sunday by winning at Le Mans. Alonso, 37 next month, now needs the Indianapolis 500 to add to his Monaco Grand Prix and Le Mans wins and emulate Britain's Graham Hill as the only driver to have triumphed at all three prestigious races. Alonso is out of contract with McLaren next year, and there are suggestions the Spaniard will turn his back on F1 and make the permanent switch to IndyCar. Alonso, however, pockets upwards of £20million-a-year racing for McLaren, and he will struggle to get even 10 per cent of that in the inferior IndyCar series. One would not be surprised to see him stay at McLaren, and instead miss next year's Monaco Grand Prix (as he did in 2017) to take on the Indy 500.

Start time moved for World Cup

The French Grand Prix has been pushed back by two hours with F1 keen for the race not to clash with England's World Cup group match against Panama. The race will now start at 4:10pm local time (3.10pm in the UK). Qualifying will also take place at 4pm. The French GP kicks off F1's first triple-header with the Austrian and British Grands Prix to follow on consecutive weekends.

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