Max Verstappen took a huge step towards defending his Formula 1 title after winning a frenetic French Grand Prix ahead of Lewis Hamilton, as main rival Charles Leclerc threw away his chances with a dramatic race-ending crash.
Leclerc had looked set to control after leading early from pole and had withstood a Verstappen onslaught before his race – and his championship bid – took a huge turn on the 18th lap thanks to a costly unenforced error.
The Monegasque driver lost control of his Ferrari car at Turn 11 and spun into the barriers, prompting gasps from a sell-out crowd and a huge outcry of emotion from Leclerc on team radio.
That propelled Verstappen into the lead, one he capitalised on with a comfortable victory to extend his championship advantage over Leclerc to 63 points.
Verstappen won from Hamilton on his 300th race as Mercedes enjoyed a super Sunday, with their seven-time world champion starting well and then easily holding off rivals behind to take second, his best finish of the season.
George Russell made it a double podium for the Silver Arrows after passing Sergio Perez with three laps remaining, catching the Red Bull driver cold after a late Virtual Safety Car and then holding off a late charge.
Carlos Sainz was fifth after a fine recovery from the back of the grid, but deserved more.
The Spaniard had advanced to third before Ferrari, in another odd strategy decision, pitted him with 10 laps remaining. Sainz also had to take a five-second penalty due to an unsafe release in the pits, and he couldn’t make up the places in time before the 53rd and final lap.
Alpine and McLaren continued their fierce midfield battle behind, with Fernando Alonso – who got ahead of Russell at the start – a solid sixth ahead of Lando Norris.
Esteban Ocon overtook Daniel Ricciardo for eighth, making up for an early penalty for tangling with Yuki Tsunoda. The AlphaTauri driver was one of four retirements, as many drivers made contact during a combative race.
That was the case for the battle for the last points position too, with Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel battling all the way into the final corner.
French GP result: Top 10
1) Max Verstappen, Red Bull
2) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
3) George Rissell, Mercedes
4) Sergio Perez, Red Bull
5) Carlos Sainz, Ferrari
6) Fernando Alonso, Alpine
7) Lando Norris, McLaren
8) Esteban Ocon, Alpine
9) Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren
10) Lance Stroll, Aston Martin
Leclerc admits ‘mistake’ with crash: Title bid over?
It was all going so well for Leclerc, until it wasn’t – as the 24-year-old paid the price for what has plagued his impressive career so far, mistakes.
Leclerc led from the start and while Verstappen had DRS – and much better straight-line speed – the Ferrari driver was able to keep him at bay and the gap grew again before Red Bull’s championship leader came into the pits on Lap 17, signalling their intentions for a two-stop race.
Ferrari didn’t respond immediately to hint at a one-stop, and Leclerc appeared comfortable. Before disaster struck.
Leclerc got onto the kerbs at the exit of Turn 11 and then spun. Stuck in the tyre barriers, Leclerc exclaimed: “Nooooooo!”
He also complained of a throttle issue, leading many to believe it was a Ferrari issue that caused the shunt rather than a Leclerc mistake.
But Leclerc, ever self-critical, said afterwards: “A mistake, a mistake.”
Now well and truly on the back foot in the title race, he added: “I’ve been saying I think I’m performing at my highest level in my career but if I keep doing those mistakes then it’s pointless to perform at a very high level. I’m losing too many points.
“Seven in Imola, 25 here because we probably were the strongest car on track today. So if we lose the championship by 32 points at the end of the season I will know from where they are coming from. And, it unacceptable, I just need to get on top of those things.”
Verstappen takes advantage, Hamilton and Russell star | Did Ferrari ruin Sainz’s charge?
Verstappen, ever the opportunist, was never going to miss out after his rival’s error.
A Safety Car was brought out after Leclerc’s error and as most the grid pitted, Verstappen took the lead thanks to his stop just before. Hamilton came out just behind the Red Bull.
Verstappen, after acing the restart, managed the race from there and was virtually unopposed through the rest of his afternoon, taking the chequered flag by 10 seconds and it would take one of the F1’s biggest title comebacks to see him denied a second straight crown
He leads Leclerc by 63 points, more than two race wins’ worth, with 10 races remaining.
While not a realistic challenge for Verstappen, Mercedes had a superb French GP.
True to 2022 form, the reigning constructors’ world champions were much faster on a Sunday than they were over one lap in qualifying, and Hamilton – after passing Perez off the line – took second.
That result was all the more impressive given his revelation that he was without a drinks bottle during the race in sweltering conditions.
There was a thrilling fight behind, which looked set to be won from Sainz as he came through the field from 19th, and then passed both Russell and Perez for third place. But with just 10 laps remaining, Ferrari – who tried to call him in during his fight with Perez – brought Sainz into the pits. Having to serve a five-second time penalty for an unsafe release during the Safety Car, that cost Sainz nearly half a minute. He emerged in ninth, and did well just to get back to fifth in the end.
That allowed Russell and Perez to battle, combatively, for the final podium place. Perez was ahead with three laps remaining – surviving a lunge from Russell as the cars made slight contact – but after a Virtual Safety Car the Mercedes driver got much the better restart and easily sailed past the Red Bull.
Perez had DRS from then on, but couldn’t make a move.
The 2022 season continues with round 13 next weekend, the Hungarian GP from Budapest’s tight and twisty Hungaroring circuit.