LE CASTELLET, France — Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton on the penultimate lap to win the French Grand Prix on Sunday and extend his lead over his title rival to 12 points.
Verstappen used his car’s drag reduction system to catch Hamilton on Lap 52 and pass him on the inside before zooming off to clinch his third win of the season and 13th of his career. A bonus point for the fastest lap made it a great day for Red Bull, which had never beaten Mercedes on the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France.
It was a close call, though, with Red Bull’s gamble on a two-stop strategy for Verstappen countered by a one-stopper for Hamilton as Mercedes kept him out on the same tires.
With five of 53 laps left, Hamilton was only 3.5 seconds ahead.
Verstappen quickly ate into that lead, kept calm and then positioned himself perfectly to attack on a long straight in the way Hamilton has done countless times in his record 98 wins.
“When we made the call to do a two-stop, luckily it paid off,” Verstappen said. “We had to work hard for it.”
Verstappen, who won by 2.9 seconds, has 131 points to Hamilton’s 119 after seven races.
Red Bull’s Sergio Perez sneaked past a dejected Valtteri Bottas to take third place and strengthen Red Bull’s lead in the constructors’ championship: 215 points to 178.
“We pulled the trigger and we went with the two-stopper (for Verstappen) and it worked. And great job from Sergio making the one-stop work,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “It’s a team effort, the strategy guys are working the numbers and they go for it.”
Verstappen took an impressive pole position ahead of Hamilton and his teammate Bottas.
Verstappen got away cleanly, but then made a basic error cutting the kerb on Turn 1 and gifted Hamilton the lead.
“In the beginning it was so difficult with the wind. Really difficult to keep the car stable,” Verstappen said. “Just lost the rear, tried to correct it, correct it, correct it, but it kept going.”
Right at the end of another exciting race, he made up for it heading into the Styrian GP in a week’s time on Red Bull’s home track, followed by the Austrian GP a week later on the same circuit nestled in the Styrian mountains.
Verstappen has already matched his career best for a season with three wins and is emerging as a massive rival for the defending champion Hamilton, who is trying to win a record eighth F1 title to move one ahead of Michael Schumacher.
Red Bull has thrown down a huge marker to Mercedes, which has won every drivers’ and constructors’ championship since 2014. The previous four years were Red Bull doubles with Sebastian Vettel at the wheel, and it looks like Mercedes is under heavy pressure now.
“I think it will be like this the rest of the season,” Verstappen said, smiling.
After three races without a win, all of which Red Bull have won, Hamilton is sounding concerned.
“We’ve got to find some pace, that’s for sure,” the veteran British driver said. “Most of the time we lost today was just the straights and we’ve got to dig deep to find out where that is.”
Lando Norris finished fifth for McLaren, again beating his more experienced teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who was sixth ahead of Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso in eighth.
It was another disappointing day for Bottas, who is fighting to keep his seat at Mercedes next year.
He is only fifth in the standings behind McLaren’s Norris and Perez.
First, Bottas was overtaken by Verstappen after an undercut on Red Bull failed to work and then Perez overtook him almost as easily as Verstappen had done.
“Why did no one listen to me when I say this should’ve been a two-stopper?” the frustrated Finnish driver barked on team radio.
Verstappen led by three seconds when his team changed tires for the second time on Lap 34, anticipating a similar move from Mercedes.
It looked like Red Bull may have got it wrong, but Verstappen proved them right to strike a blow in a thrilling title fight.