Place strategy

Verstappen first in France

Dutch driver Max Verstappen celebrates on the podium of the Formula 1 French Grand Prix at the Paul-Ricard circuit in Le Castellet, southern France, on July 24, 2022. Photo: AFP

World champion Max Verstappen took full advantage of Charles Leclerc’s crash to extend his advantage in the 2022 title chase with a landslide victory over Lewis Hamilton in Sunday’s sunny French Grand Prix.

The 24-year-old Dutchman drove with flawless control in the scorching heat to guide his home Red Bull to a 10.587-second lead over Mercedes’ Hamilton in his 300th race, with George Russell in second Mercedes, beating Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull. Taurus, for the third.

It was Verstappen’s seventh win this season and 27th of his career and a blow to Leclerc’s challenge in the opening race of the second half of the season.

After 12 of 22 races, Verstappen leads Leclerc by 63 points in the drivers standings.

“We had good pace but it was hard to keep up here with the tires overheating so we stayed calm,” said Verstappen.

“You never know how it’s going to turn out… It was bad luck for Charles and I’m glad he’s okay.”

Perez finished fourth ahead of a creeping Carlos Sainz, who drove from the back of the grid to finish fifth for Ferrari ahead of Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Lando Norris.

Esteban Ocon finished eighth in the second Alpine ahead of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.

Hamilton was delighted to be second.

“It was a tough race because my drink bottle didn’t work, so it’s a great result for us, especially considering we’re so off the pace,” he said.

On a scorching hot afternoon, with a track temperature of 52 degrees and looking 34 at the start, Leclerc got off to a good start to lead the first corner ahead of Verstappen, with Hamilton jumping ahead of Perez in third.

Leclerc led by a second after the opening lap, which saw Yuki Tsunoda slip away and recover as Sainz, from the back of the grid, began his charge.

Verstappen’s superior straight-line speed propelled him close behind Leclerc’s Ferrari at the end of the Mistral straight, but the leader held on, his car squirming for grip in the heat.

After resisting Verstappen’s early attacks, Leclerc held a nine-tenths lead by lap 13.

Sainz, praised for his progress by Ferrari, reached 10th place on lap 14.

Up front, Leclerc increased his pace to pull 1.7 seconds ahead on lap 15, when the track temperature was recorded at 55 degrees.

“We are planning a plan B,” Ferrari told Leclerc, refocusing on tire wear and strategy.

Verstappen entered on lap 17 for a pit stop in 2.4 seconds, rejoining seventh place. On his return, Ferrari warned Leclerc that his tires were overheating, but he held a 10-second lead over Hamilton with Perez third, three seconds from the drift.

Leclerc post DNF

Verstappen quickly passed Norris for sixth, but Leclerc stayed out then, on lap 18, crashed at Le Beausset, penetrating heavily into the tire barrier.

He emerged, apparently unscathed despite the impact estimated at 175 kilometers per hour.

The distressed Leclerc shouted that he had a problem with the accelerator. It was his third exit from the lead this season, just as he looked capable of scoring Ferrari’s third straight win.

A safety car was deployed, Hamilton pitted and Verstappen took the lead.

Leclerc later emerged to admit the crash was his fault.

“It was a mistake, my mistake,” he said. “I was pushing too much and I lost the rear.”

Verstappen made a smooth restart to lead ahead of Hamilton and Perez as Sainz climbed to fifth. The Spaniard was then given a five-second penalty for a dangerous exit from his pit stop.

On Lap 34, Vertappen led Hamilton by 6.499 seconds with Perez third, 1.475 adrift, but blisters appeared on various tyres, including Sainz’s front just after passing Russell for fourth.

With 15 laps remaining, this posed problems for the Italian pit wall team and others as the swirling wind increased.

Frustrated in fourth, Sainz asked Ferrari for new tires who told him to go for plan D, then stay out and finally, halfway overtake Perez in the pits.

“Not now,” shouted the Spaniard who took third place then, on lap 43, stopped for tires and to serve his penalty.

It looked disconcerting Ferrari had lost a solid chance of third as Sainz joined ninth, while Russell and Perez battled for the final podium spot.

AFP