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Verstappen triumphs over Hamilton after late pass in scintillating French Grand Prix

Max Verstappen has extended his lead in the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship with a victory at the French Grand Prix. The Red Bull Honda driver benefitted from the undercut after an early mistake had given the race lead to Lewis Hamilton. The race was also noteworthy for the upturn in performance for Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian led McLaren teammate Lando Norris throughout the first half of the race and finished line astern in 5th and 6th.

Track conditions changed quite significantly on race day when rain lashed the circuit just prior to the Formula 3 race. Whilst the precipitation had long subsided by the main race, the layers of rubber that had been laid down throughout practice, qualifying and the earlier support races had been largely washed away. This brought fresh challenges to teams and drivers with changes to adhesion levels and wear rates for the Pirelli tyres. Race strategies which tended towards a one stop strategy were now more likely to be two stop races.

Verstappen led Hamilton off the line as the race began with Bottas and Perez in close support of their respective teammates. Verstappen slid towards the edge of the track as he approached the first turn and found himself on the wrong side of the bollards that marked the edge of the circuit. He bounced over the ripple strip with his front wing shaking under the contact as Hamilton swept into the lead.

There was some conjecture between the Sky Sports commentary team as to whether Verstappen had erred in not taking to the run off road, which was the officially sanctioned re-entry route to the circuit and what penalty, if any, the Dutch driver might receive. Indeed the matter was reviewed by the Race Director, with the all clear given some laps later into the race. 

Daniel Ricciardo had made an excellent start and showed some of the late braking skills that had become synonymous with his driving to move past Norris on the approach to the first corner. Norris dropped two places in the opening corners as Ricciardo looked for a way past Fernando Alonso’s Alpine. Hamilton led from Verstappen, Bottas, Perez, Sainz, Gasly, Alonso, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Ocon and Norris during the early exchanges on the opening lap of the race.

Norris quickly moved ahead of Ocon and harried Ricciardo towards the end of the opening lap. He looked to move past his teammate on the run towards the first corner at the start of lap 2, but found himself squeezed for space in the braking zone and ran off the track. Unlike Verstappen beforehand, Norris was compelled to take the escape road and lost ground to the Australian.

By lap 10 the field had largely settled into a race mode with Hamilton in the lead from Verstappen, Bottas, Perez, Sainz, Gasly and Leclerc. The main battle centred on 8th place with Ricciardo seemingly unable to find a way around Alonso, who had complained to his Alpine team of grip issues with his medium Pirelli tyres. That had enabled Norris to close in on the pair. Ricciardo finally moved ahead on lap 11 and Norris followed almost immediately as the McLaren pair surged towards the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc.

Yuki Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher were the first to pit on lap 16, with Ricciardo next to stop on the following lap. The move dropped the Australian to 17th with hopes that an undercut would work in his favour, which it indeed it did. He jumped ahead of both Sainz and Gasly when they made their first stops on lap 18. He also looked to move ahead of Leclerc as well but dropped time to the Ferrari when Kimi Raikkonen, who had not yet made his first stop, split the pair nearing lap 20.

Verstappen had also stopped before race leader Hamilton, who had been told by his engineer to use ‘Hammer time’ just prior to his scheduled stop on lap 20. It didn’t work out for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 driver, who watched the Red Bull Honda sail past and into the effective lead under brakes for the first turn.

“Okay Lewis not sure what happened there mate, Hamilton’s engineer radioed as he followed behind the Red Bull Honda.

Norris was amongst a number of drivers to run long during their first stint and eventually stopped for fresh rubber on lap 25. At that point in the race the leader board had Verstappen in first, ahead of Hamilton, Bottas, Perez, Vettel, Stroll, Ocon, Leclerc, Giovinazzi, Ricciardo, Sainz and Gasly.

Verstappen’s lead over Hamilton was just under a second as the leader began the 30th of the 53 lap race, but the hard compound tyres were already struggling under the pressure. Though considered to be useful for a punishing 41 laps, Max Verstappen was already of the opinion that the tyres would not last for that length of time.

“We cannot keep this up until the end of the race, that’s for sure, Verstappen told his race engineer as thoughts of a two stop strategy came into the picture. By lap 32 both Hamilton and Bottas stated that the tyre degradation was far worse than predicted. Hamilton later reported that his rear tyres were good, but not the fronts.

Red Bull called Verstappen in for a fresh set of medium compound tyres on lap 32, which placed Hamilton in an unenviable position. The gap from Hamilton in first to fourth placed Verstappen was a little over 20 seconds, a gap likely to be consumed in either scenario of Hamilton running to the finish on the grip diminishing hard tyre or stop for another set of medium. The trump card had been well played by Red Bull Honda.

Lando Norris finally caught and passed Ricciardo for 7th place on lap 34, the British driver having benefitted from much fresher tyres on his car.

Hamilton’s hopes of winning the race depended on how quickly Verstappen was able to catch and pass Valtteri Bottas, who sat in 2nd place some 2.8 seconds from the leader. Verstappen was having his own problems with the team radio, his discussions inaudible due to a microphone issue. He was then asked by his engineer to adjust the microphone when the chance arose.

Verstappen had moved within the DRS zone of Bottas with 10 laps left of the French Grand Prix, while Hamilton had skipped away to a 4 second lead. The Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team had hoped that the advantage of Verstappen’s newer tyres might fall away after a few laps behind the Finn, but a small mistake for Bottas at the chicane saw Verstappen take the place a few moments later.

Hamilton’s advantage had shrunk to 1.14 seconds with 3 laps left to run. Verstappen moved to within 1 second of Hamilton and capitalised on the DRS zone to retake the lead on the penultimate lap. He cruised away to 1.8 second lead to win from Hamilton and Perez, who had snared 3rd place from Bottas in a move that was subject to a late race review. Norris finished 5th ahead of Ricciardo, Gasly, Alonso, Vettel and Stroll.

“Winning this race was an amazing Team effort and to have a double podium at a track like this really shows the hard work everyone is putting in here and in Milton Keynes at our factory and Honda’s, Verstappen told Red Bull Media. “Of course I would have liked to pull off into the distance and cruise ahead on my own but it doesn’t often work like that in Formula One and we really had to work for it today. You can see how close the two teams are and to win like this on strategy with two laps to go is very rewarding. It was certainly not an easy race and I got caught out at Turn 1 and lost the rear which meant I had to go off the track and lost a position to Lewis. I was of course upset at the time but I knew there was a long race ahead and I had to focus. In the first stint I didn’t really have the pace to fight with Lewis so we took the risk to pit first and to be honest I didn’t expect the undercut to work so well that I would come out ahead. They were pushing hard to try and pass me but luckily I could just about stay ahead and I knew I couldn’t make any mistakes. We decided to go for the two stop strategy which worked out well as our car suited the conditions towards the end of the race as the wind became a little less and the track rubbered in. In the end we made the right calls for both cars and it is great to be on the podium with Checo. We should all enjoy this for a few days until we get to Austria and start again.

Lewis Hamilton had told his team that he held concerns for the race strategy during the cool down lap, one which was acknowledged by the team.

Congratulations to Max, he did a great job today, Hamilton told Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Media.“The Red Bulls had better straight line speed all weekend but considering that we had such a difficult Friday, I’m really happy with this result. Of course, we didn’t win and we had the lead but I had no tyres left at the end so unfortunately we lost the position, but it was still a good race. We’ve got to find some pace, that’s for sure. Most of the time we lost today was on the straights, so we’ve got to dig deep, try and figure out where that is, and whether it’s power or drag but overall, we’ve still got a good package. We didn’t know how strong the undercut was going to be but what was really surprising was just how we ran out of that front tyre soearly on but obviously they had a good strategy and it worked really well for them.

At the end of the day there was a degree of mixed emotions for Daniel Ricciardo who had held sway of Lando Norris for the larger portion of the race.

“Definitely a positive Sunday,” Ricciardo said to McLaren Media. “I think it was the race we were hoping for but not the one we expected. I don’t think we expected our closest competitor to score no points, and for us to be the best of the midfield with both cars. That was our dream race and we managed to pull it off. I’m really happy with the race, although if I’m honest, I wasn’t totally happy with the car. I was struggling from the laps to grid and then for the whole race. But it felt like everyone else, besides Lando, was struggling more. It was a fun race and I’m happy we brought it home in fifth and sixth for the team today. It’s about time we got back in these positions, so it was a positive day.”

1 33 Max Verstappen RED BULL RACING HONDA 53 1:27:25.770 26
2 44 Lewis Hamilton MERCEDES 53 +2.904s 18
3 11 Sergio Perez RED BULL RACING HONDA 53 +8.811s 15
4 77 Valtteri Bottas MERCEDES 53 +14.618s 12
5 4 Lando Norris MCLAREN MERCEDES 53 +64.032s 10
6 3 Daniel Ricciardo MCLAREN MERCEDES 53 +75.857s 8
7 10 Pierre Gasly ALPHATAURI HONDA 53 +76.596s 6
8 14 Fernando Alonso ALPINE RENAULT 53 +77.695s 4
9 5 Sebastian Vettel ASTON MARTIN MERCEDES 53 +79.666s 2
10 18 Lance Stroll ASTON MARTIN MERCEDES 53 +91.946s 1
11 55 Carlos Sainz FERRARI 53 +99.337s 0
12 63 George Russell WILLIAMS MERCEDES 52 +1 lap 0
13 22 Yuki Tsunoda ALPHATAURI HONDA 52 +1 lap 0
14 31 Esteban Ocon ALPINE RENAULT 52 +1 lap 0
15 99 Antonio Giovinazzi ALFA ROMEO RACING FERRARI 52 +1 lap 0
16 16 Charles Leclerc FERRARI 52 +1 lap 0
17 7 Kimi Räikkönen ALFA ROMEO RACING FERRARI 52 +1 lap 0
18 6 Nicholas Latifi WILLIAMS MERCEDES 52 +1 lap 0
19 47 Mick Schumacher HAAS FERRARI 52 +1 lap 0
20 9 Nikita Mazepin HAAS FERRARI 52 +1 lap 0



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