F1: Verstappen defeats Hamilton in French GP thriller
A race-long battle came down to the penultimate lap as on a different race strategy, Red Bull's Max Verstappen regained the lead of the race after hunting down Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton to claim a phenomenal victory to extend his championship lead.
Starting from a fifth career Pole Position, Verstappen initially lost the lead to his title rival as the Dutchman corrected a slide heading into the opening corner. From then onwards, Verstappen was the meat in the Mercedes sandwich as Valterri Bottas kept the pressure on during the opening stint of the race. All three drivers were nip and tuck as Verstappen's team-mate, Sergio Perez, was crucially still within touching distance sitting behind in fourth.
TITLE RIVALS: The gap between Hamilton (left) and Verstappen (right) has increased to 12 points after the Dutchman won and took an extra point for the Fastest Lap
All of the twenty drivers bar five started on the favoured Medium tyre and intially, the race was set to be an easy one-stop strategy. So the drivers starting on the Medium, the likes of Hamilton, Verstappen, they'd be stopping, switching to the Hard tyre and ending the race on that set.
Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas were setting lightning fast laps with all three setting blistering lap times of the race continuously lap after lap. Perez sat around six seconds behind but then started to match the leading pace and it would be this early stage of the race that would aid the Mexican later on.
With the track temperatures slightly lowered than expected as early rain before the race start, the Medium tyre was not performing as well as the drivers would have liked. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who started in seventh, was the first driver to pit as his tyres fell of the cliff. The Scuderia driver rejoined on the Hard tyre and this would set off a chain reaction.
Daniel Ricciardo, who now has looked to have finally gelled with his McLaren, had a storming opening stint and pitted a few laps later than Leclerc in an attempt to undercut AlphaTauri's Piere Gasly.
When Ricciardo emerged from the pits, he found himself back behind Leclerc who'd he previously overtaken before the Monegasque but this was an eye-opener for all. The power of the undercut. Quick to respond, Ferrari's Carlos Sainz Jr and Gasly, pitted a lap later with both coming out behind Leclerc and Ricciardo.
Up at the front, Bottas blinked first. Oddly, the strategy normally allows the lead driver of a team the option to pit first but in this case, the Finn opted to pull the trigger. Red Bull had to respond as on his out-lap, Bottas was pushing. With enough of a margin, Verstappen pitted and rejoined just ahead of the Mercedes driver.
As Verstappen pitted, Hamilton was given his famous phrase by his race engineer, "It's hammer-time." The Brit pushed as Verstappen and got his tyres up to temperature. Hamilton had a margin of around two and a half seconds to Verstappen so when he pitted, his crew were confident of keeping the lead.
Hamilton trundled his way down the pit-lane after a good stop by his pit-crew as Verstappen came along the main straight. Now up to speed, Hamilton closed on Turn 1 but to his surprise, Verstappen had gotten there before him. Reclaiming the lead, Verstappen was back in control as Bottas now pressured Hamilton.
LOSING TIME: Unaware of the power of the undercut and the amount of time the drivers gain on track, Hamilton and Mercedes were certain of retaining the lead but were ultimately caught out.
There were no words over team radio as Hamilton, for the second time in three races, could not understand how he'd lost a position during the pit-stop phase. For the best of ten hard and fast laps, Verstappen, Hamilton and Bottas were less than a second from each other.
Ahead of them, Perez was extending his stint and had saved his tyres early on to have this pace at this stage. By extending his stint by around three laps, the Mexican pitted and rejoined in fourth and was now going to the end of the race but the same could not be said for his team-mate.
Absorbing huge amounts of pressure, Verstappen kept the Mercedes duo at bay but over team radio, he was sceptical of making it to the end of the race on these Hard tyres. It was also at this stage that Bottas, sitting in third, who also suggested about switching to a two-stop. So, the ball was in Red Bull's court. They had track position but would they give that up for fresh rubber?
The decision was made as Verstappen made a late call to pit. If the Dutchman hadn't of pitted, he feared a repeat of the Spanish GP earlier this year when Hamilton turned his strategy into a two instead of a one stop which caught him out. Spain was just another repeat of Hungary in 2019 when Mercedes and Hamilton opted to pit for fresher tyres in an attempt to pressure the Dutchman.
Emerging from the pits, Verstappen came back out on track on the Medium tyre and in fourth, some three seconds behind Perez. The charge and hunt was on and it looked like Mercedes were staying put.
An eighteen second gap was quickly eroded as Verstappen was taking an average of one and a half seconds out of Hamilton's lead. Perez had let his faster team-mate through as the Red Bull's hoped to work together to disrupt the Mercedes duo.
TEAM EFFORT: Red Bull have now won the past three races and have a lead of 37 points over Mercedes as the team seek their first title since 2013
Hamilton had to deal with traffic which included Leclerc who'd had to stop again for another set of tyres. The Monegasque was massively struggling to find pace and grip and so was his team-mate Sainz as both Ferrari's had fallen outside of the points. Between Hamilton and Verstappen was lapped drivers but also Bottas.
BAFFLED: Despite a strong qualifying by both Sainz and Leclerc, both dropped out of the top ten as the Scuderia failed to score points for the first time this season
The Red Bull had been mightly fast on the straights so when Bottas defended into the Turn 7 and 8 chicane, he'd missed his braking spot and had Verstappen right alongside as they headed to long left hander at Turn 10. With the inside line, Verstappen claimed second.
Bottas vented over team radio and rightfully so. He'd suggested earlier to switch up the strategy but were Mercedes relcutant to pit the Finn because he was there on track to protect Hamilton? Who knows. Having been past by one Red Bull, he'd have to contend with the other one in a few laps time.
The gap to Hamilton was five seconds as Verstappen had set his eyes on his next target who was now clear of traffic. For a few laps, the gap stayed the same but in a blink of an eye, it had been narrowed to only three seconds.
In the meantime, Perez had closed up to the back of Bottas and the battle of the rear gunners began and ended in a flash. With slightly fresher tyres, the Mexican past the Finn for a well deserved podium and this was his reward for being so easy on his tyres in the early phase of the race.
That three second gap then tumbled to two, then to one and a half then, Verstappen was within DRS range. In the same place where he caught Bottas, Verstappen had a run at Hamilton down into Turn 8. The Brit desperately tried to hold on but the Dutchman eased past with his fresher rubber. Credit to where credits due, Hamilton was consistent with his older tyres and made Verstappen's life harder by being consistent.
A triumphant Verstappen crossed the line to take his third victory of the season to extend his championship lead over his title rival. The Red Bull pit-wall were extremely satisified as for one of the few times since the start of the hybrid era, they had out-classed Mercedes on strategy.
ANOTHER MILESTONE: Since Red Bull began competing in F1 in 2005, they had never won the French GP with Verstappen's second place in 2018 being their best finish
Behind the top four drivers, Lando Norris came home fifth for Mclaren ahead of team-mate Ricciardo. Norris went long on his tyres in the early phase and was confused why he had been left out while the rest of the drivers he'd been fighting had pitted. However, on fresher tyres he sliced his way through and was able to pass Ricciardo to secure yet another top five finish.
Gasly narrowly held onto seventh and was lucky to hold that position as he had Alpine's Fernando Alonso very close for company in the final few laps. After the race, Alonso admitted he could have overtaken Gasly if the AlphaTauri driver wasn't in the DRS range of Ricciardo ahead.
Rounding out the top ten were the Aston Martin pair of Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll. Both drivers started on the Hard tyre so were able to run longer in the race in the hope of fresher rubber towards the end. Helped by the poor race pace of the Ferrari's, the pair scored points while Stroll made an excellent recovery after starting 19th.
Recording Williams's best finish of the year, George Russell claimed 12th for the Grove outfit but the result is more impressive given that he finished in that position on pace alone as the race saw all twenty drivers finish.
Esteban Ocon, who earlier in the week signed a new deal with Alpine taking him to the 2024 season, struggled with tyre wear throughout the race and couldn't match the pace of team-mate Alonso. The Frenchman finished a lap down in 14th.