Leclerc loses out again as Verstappen wins French GP

Max Verstappen took a giant step towards retaining the world championship with his seventh victory of the season at Paul Ricard, as Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crashed out from the lead.

The Monegasque driver looked to be controlling the race before losing the rear at turn 11, hitting the barriers and retiring from the lead for the third time this season. This handed the race to Verstappen, who never looked like losing after that, and now has a sixty-three-point lead over Leclerc in the championship.

It was a great day for Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton coming home second with George Russell in third, securing the Brackley-based team’s first double podium in 2022. Sergio Perez was fourth for Red Bull after a disappointing weekend for the Mexican.

Hamilton’s great start. Image courtesy of Pirelli F1 Media

In a race where track temperatures reached upwards of 50°C, tyre management was crucial, and the opening stages resembled Friday practice, with Verstappen looking to have the pace over Leclerc. Both were pulling away from the rest of the pack, which was being led by Hamilton after a brilliant start from the Brit, who was celebrating his 300th race in Formula One.

Despite this apparent pace advantage, Verstappen could only get alongside the Ferrari once, as overtaking opportunities were once again at a premium. This would prove to be his one and only chance to make the move on track, as the pace pendulum swung towards Leclerc. Being able to manage his tyres in clean air (and keep Max behind where it mattered), meant that Charles was in a better position as the laps ticked by, and was eventually able to pull a two-second gap before Verstappen pitted on lap 16.

Ferrari chose not to react instantly, with Leclerc’s tyres seemingly in a good condition. The car had looked unstable at the rear on a few occasions in the race, and it was that instability that proved to be fatal to their chances of a race victory. Leclerc lost the rear coming through turn 11, and his race ended in the barriers on lap 18. This handed the lead to Verstappen, who was able to control the race from the front, with Lewis Hamilton coming home in second, despite having a faulty drinks bottle throughout the race.

The safety car was brought out by Leclerc early on. Image courtesy of Pirelli F1 Media

The ensuing Safety Car did allow the other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz to close up to the front of the field, but the timing was less than ideal. The Spaniard had to remove his hards earlier than planned, and things got worse for him as an unsafe release led to a five-second penalty. The medium tyres though were working well for Sainz, as he effortlessly dispatched of Ricciardo and Norris after the safety car ended, and soon found himself on the back of Russell after overtaking Alonso.

Unsurprisingly, this was a lot less straightforward for the Spaniard, but he was able to force Russell off-line into the Mistral chicane on lap 30, before sweeping around the outside of Signes to claim fourth, and was soon on the back of Perez. It was here where Ferrari’s strategical indecision reared its ugly head once more. Aware that a pit stop would cost them over half a minute (due to the penalty and an unusually long pit lane at Paul Ricard), Ferrari seemed in two minds as to whether to bring Sainz in and guarantee fifth, or keep him out and risk a podium. In the end, after a brilliant battle between the Ferrari and the Red Bull of Perez, which cost them both time, Ferrari brought in Sainz with only ten laps to go. He was able to recover to fifth and secured the fastest lap but was left wondering what might have been.

Perez’s prolonged battle with Sainz brought Russell into play, and the Brit was determined to take advantage. Russell attempted a move into the Mistral chicane, making slight contact with Perez who was forced to skip the chicane. This infuriated the Mercedes man, who felt he was squeezed onto the kerb, with team principal Toto Wolff having to come onto the radio to calm the 24-year-old down.

It looked like Perez was going to hang-on, until a virtual safety car was deployed as Zhou Guanyu retired from the race with mechanical issues. As this VSC ended, Perez was caught napping in the final sector, allowing Russell to sweep past at turn 13 and secure his fourth podium of the season.

Further back, Alpine and McLaren had an interesting battle for the best-of-the-rest crown, with Fernando Alonso coming home in sixth, ahead of Lando Norris in seventh. Norris’ teammate Daniel Ricciardo was eighth, with Esteban Ocon recovering to ninth, after a five-second penalty for a first-lap collision with Yuki Tsunoda, which ultimately led to the Japanese driver’s retirement.

Aston Martin provided some action in the final laps, as Sebastian Vettel was all over the back of Lance Stroll for the last point. Stroll smartly parked his car on the apex of the final corner on the final lap to prevent the German from getting ahead, coming home tenth for the fourth time this season.

Gasly trying to get past the Aston Martin. Image courtesy of RedBull Content Pool

Pierre Gasly was twelfth as Alpha Tauri’s pace woes continue, with the Italian team failing to score in four consecutive races for the first time since the Toro Rosso days of 2018. Alex Albon was 13th for Williams, ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Mick Schumacher. It was a disappointing day for Haas, who lost out in the safety car period, with both cars also making contact with others during the race. Schumacher collided with Zhou after the safety car restart, with Kevin Magnussen and Nicolas Latifi colliding later at turn one. Both the Dane and the Canadian later retired in the pits, in order to save the car.

Verstappen knows from last year just how quickly a championship lead can evaporate, but the Dutchman has never previously led by such a margin in Formula One. Leclerc holds on to second by just seven points from Perez, with Sainz, Russell and Hamilton rounding out the top six. In the constructors, Red Bull has an eighty-two-point lead over Ferrari, despite having their own reliability woes earlier in the season.

The F1 paddock moves to Budapest next weekend, for the Hungarian GP, and it is expected that this track will suit Ferrari thanks to its twisty nature. If Leclerc is to remain in the championship challenge, he can not afford to leave empty-handed.

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