Max Verstappen overcame Lewis Hamilton to take victory in the French Grand Prix with a late charge from fourth to extend his championship lead.
The Dutchman passed Hamilton for the win on the penultimate lap, the fifth change of the lead in the race, after an inspired gamble on a second tire change gave the Red Bull Racing driver almost 20 seconds to make up on the Briton’s Mercedes with 20 laps to run.
It was a replay in reverse of the Spanish Grand Prix, where Mercedes had played a similar blinder against Red Bull Racing to secure victory.
The recovery was made all the sweeter after Verstappen seemingly threw victory away on the first lap when he dropped from pole to second by running deep out of the first turn.
Verstappen slides off at Turn 2 and Hamilton surges past into the lead!
— Formula 1 (@F1) June 20, 2021
Hamilton easily took first place, demoting the Dutchman to second in a sandwich with Valtteri Bottas in third, and the trio lapped in that order for the first stint.
The Mercedes had a small but decisive advantage on the medium tire, and Bottas sought to capitalize by making the first pit stop of the three, converting to the hard compound on Lap 17.
Verstappen came in to cover on the following lap, emerging ahead of Bottas, but crucially Mercedes neglected to bring Hamilton in on the same lap. It wasn’t until Lap 19 that Hamilton stopped, and when he rejoined the race he’d been undercut by the Red Bull Racing driver.
“Not sure what happened there, mate,” Hamilton was told apologetically by Peter Bonnington, his race engineer.
Still the Mercedes was the faster car, but Hamilton was struggling to break Verstappen’s defense. The RB16B had been set up with less downforce relative to the W12, so as much as Hamilton closed up through the corners, Verstappen could escape down the straights and fend off a move in the key braking zones.
But the frenetic pace of the lead battle was taking its toll on the tires. Doubts were creeping into the drivers that the grand prix could be finished with just one stop, and hoping to avoid the punishment he exacted on Hamilton at the first change, Verstappen was the first to blink, ceding the lead for new medium tires on Lap 32.
Mercedes decided to keep track position instead of taking new rubber, giving Verstappen 18s to recover in 20 laps.
With 10 laps to go the flying Dutchman had sliced his deficit to 5s and was trailing Bottas by a matter of tenths. The Finn attempted to defend, but in their first duel he ran wide at the first turn, putting him side by side with the faster car out of the second turn and losing him the place by Turn 3.
Worse for Bottas was that he was almost immediately under assault from Sergio Perez. The Mexican had been running fourth early in the race but delayed his first stop until Lap 24, eliminating the need for him to make a second stop.
“Why the f••• did no one listen to me when I said this was going to be a two-stopper?” Bottas shouted exasperatedly to his pit wall. He was demoted off the podium by Lap 49.
The battle for the lead stabilized at 5s, but as the pair encountered lapped traffic the gap was sliced further, with just 3.3s splitting them with five laps remaining.
Inexorably Verstappen closed, and on the penultimate lap he made short work of Hamilton to take the lead through the chicane and charge triumphant to the checkered flag.
“Luckily, it paid off!” Verstappen enthused. “The whole race we were fighting each other. I think it will be like this for the rest of the season.”
— Formula 1 (@F1) June 20, 2021
It’s the first time since the French Grand Prix returned to the calendar that Hamilton hasn’t won it, and Red Bull Racing’s victory — its third in a row — was a statement at a circuit regarded even pre-race as a Mercedes stronghold.
“Congrats to Max, he did a great job today,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got to find some pace, that’s for sure.”
Verstappen’s lead over Hamilton is now 12 points, and Red Bull Racing leads Mercedes by 26 points in the constructors standings with Perez third on the podium.
“Great race, great strategy for the team,” the Mexican said. “I’m happy we won the race today, good points for the team.”
Bottas was a despondent fourth, Mercedes choosing not to bring him in for fresh tires late to take the point for fastest lap, which ended with Verstappen.
Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth and sixth in a strong result for McLaren. The team was rapid in race trim compared to the rest of the midfield, and though Ricciardo led the pair in the first stint, a late sole stop for Norris gave him an eight-lap tire offset he used to slice back past the Australian in the second half of the race.
Pierre Gasly secured seventh for AlphaTauri less than a second behind Ricciardo after a late-race duel.
Fernando Alonso drove a well-managed race to eighth, the experienced Spaniard defending against Sebastian Vettel in the second half of the race.
Vettel was on an alternative strategy for Aston Martin, starting 12th but on the hard tire rather than the medium, but the pace of his softer rubber wasn’t enough to usurp the Alpine.
His teammate, Lance Stroll, finished 10th for the final point in a strong recovery from 19th thanks to a gamble on the soft tire for the last 19 laps, the only driver to use the delicate rubber.