• INSIGHT: Extra Bits from France

The storylines you may have missed in Le Castellet…

Niki has a long memory!

With engines and reliability dominating paddock talk, Niki Lauda could be forgiven his wry smile when asked to contemplate Paul Ricard and engines...

Back in 1975, Niki won his fourth race of the year at this track en route to his first World Championship with Ferrari. A year later, he came back to the south of France with five wins from the first seven races in defence of his title in that iconic '76 season chronicled in the film 'Rush.'

Arch-rival James Hunt beat him to the pole - but evocative long lens TV shots of the day showed Niki weaving down the Mistral Straight (then without a chicane!) in the shimmering heat haze to break the tow with the whole snaking field following in his wheel tracks. Having left Hunt in his wake by the best part of a second per lap, he suffered an engine failure after just eight laps. Hunt won.

Of course, as the year went on, later came Niki's fiery life-threatening accident at Nürburgring and his heroic return to the cockpit just 60 days later. He then retired his Ferrari after a single lap in the season finale at Fuji.

The race was run in appalling wet, foggy conditions and Niki, despite operations on eyelids burned in the accident, was unable to blink away tears, adding to his visibility problems. Hunt's four points for a third-place finish (9-6-4-3-2-1 was the scoring system of the day) was enough to overhaul Niki by a single point.

"When Ferrari said to me I cost myself the title by stopping in Japan, I said: 'No. Your crankshaft broke in Ricard and cost me nine points. So was it me, or was it you?"

The other big contest...

There's nothing quite like the World Cup to add even more spice to an already ultra-competitive F1 paddock!

With traffic management at the Circuit Paul Ricard no more sophisticated than that of the sport's last visit in 1990, more stayed on in the team's (increasingly subdued) hospitality suite than attempted to leave the circuit early on Saturday evening to watch Germany come within one minute of likely elimination in the group stages.

Schadenfreude could be detected in the nearby media centre. But, of course, the Germans scored in the last minute, disaster was averted, the Swedes wept and, down at Sauber, Marcus Ericsson buried his head in his hands.

England, with Lewis' former school contemporary Ashley Young in the team, dispelled some race-day lunchtime tensions with a comprehensive thrashing of Panama.

Lewis though, was preoccupied: "I didn't get to see the game. When I walked into the garage to put my helmet on I saw it was 6-0. I did the three laps to the grid, came back to go to the toilet and saw it was 6-1. What a great result. I had to win after that!

Gorgeous, George!

Russell, that is, not Clooney! Junior Driver George Russell scored the second F2 feature race win of his rookie season from pole position at Paul Ricard on Saturday.

George drove superbly in all manner of conditions and is now just 13 points behind Championship leader and McLaren junior Lando Norris.

"It was one of the trickiest races I've ever been part of," he said. "Leading, you've got no references when the rain is falling and I was approaching each corner not knowing how much grip I'd have.

"I pushed because I knew there was an opportunity to build a gap but by the end I was really struggling with tyre degradation and only just manage to keep hold of the lead."

Sunday's reverse-grid Sprint race brought bad luck, however, as sensor / software issues left George stranded on the grid. Fortunately, battle recommences at the Red Bull Ring in Austria next weekend, giving the young Brit a chance to hit straight back.

Any chance of an upgrade?

It's a sentence uttered at airport check-in desks around the world - more often in hope than anticipation. But it was also the question most occupying the media on the opening day at Paul Ricard.

The team had postponed the planned Canada debut of its 'Spec 2' engine, with just three Power Units permitted by the 2018 regulations and Montreal marking the one-third point of the schedule.

With guestimates suggesting that a Power Unit upgrade should be worth 'a tenth or two per lap' and Valtteri missing pole in Montreal by just nine hundredths, everyone wanted to know whether the fresh engines would be in the car in France.

The team kept schtum until Friday practice was over before confirming that the new unit - now officially the Phase 2.1 - was in both W09s and also the customer Force India and Williams cars.

"It was scheduled for Montreal," Toto confirmed, "but then on the last long (dyno) run we saw some oddities and irregularities and stayed with the Phase 1. We have added 'goodness' in the delay. I believe in karma and everything happening for a reason. We needed a little more time to consolidate our gains."

How to gauge success?

After a Montreal reversal that Toto dubbed "a wake-up call for the whole team," Paul Ricard was a great fillip with a front-row lock-out and a well-controlled lights-to-flag victory from Lewis.

It did not go unnoticed, however, that this was the second time that Pirelli had run its thinner gauge tyres - on which Ferrari appeared to struggle in Spain and where the team took the year's most emphatic win.

A pattern? The engineers think not. If, back on the standard tyres next weekend in Austria, the team have a harder time, they may reconsider.

"I think Austria should be a fairly decent track for us," Lewis said. "It has been in the past so I don't see why it should be different now. The Red Bulls have also been particularly quick there in the past because it's quite a good downforce circuit, so it'll be interesting."