Max Verstappen triumphs in pulsating duel with Lewis Hamilton at French GP

Red Bull driver hunts down rival to overtake in penultimate lap

Max Verstappen won the French Grand Prix for Red Bull after a gripping fight with Lewis Hamilton, whose Mercedes was beaten into second place on the penultimate lap. Sergio Pérez was in third for Red Bull and Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas was in fourth with McLaren's Lando Norris in fifth.

Verstappen won after a tense, superlative race that ebbed and flowed between the two as they fought on track and their teams attempted to outclass one another from the pit wall.

Ultimately it was Red Bull and the Dutchman who triumphed, with Verstappen now taking a 12-point lead in the championship and his team a 37-point advantage over Mercedes in the constructors’. The head-to-head fight between the two title contenders was indicative of just what an intense battle they have joined this season.

The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, had said if his team could beat Mercedes here, where they have been utterly dominant in recent years, they could beat them anywhere. This win was a definitive statement that Red Bull have an edge across the range of circuits. Horner's analysis looks ominously accurate and Mercedes now know they are playing catch-up, and without the comfort of an advantage on certain tracks.

For Verstappen his first win in France, where his previous best finish had been second, provides yet more momentum and will go some way to making up for the disappointment of losing a likely victory after suffering a tyre blowout while leading at the last round in Baku.

His 13th career victory is his third this season after a dominant victory in Monaco and another in Imola. He had to work hard take the flag here at Paul Ricard.

Verstappen got away from pole cleanly and held the lead into turn one but lost the rear slightly on cold tyres and was forced to cut the corner through turn two. Hamilton, who had stayed on line, pounced to take the lead. No action was taken against Verstappen for cutting the corner.

It was a hugely costly unforced error and Hamilton made the most of it. He immediately opened a gap in the clean air out front, with a second and half on the Dutchman by lap five, which the pair held stable with a series of metronomic laps. They were, however, struggling with tyre wear on the medium rubber with which they had started the race.

Hamilton had a three-second advantage by lap 17, when Bottas was the first of the leaders to pit to take the hard tyre. Verstappen covered him off with his stop a lap later and emerged in front of the Finn. Hamilton stayed out and pushed on his in-lap to pit on lap 19.

His stop was clean and quick – in 2.2 seconds, one-tenth faster than Red Bull’s – but Verstappen’s out-lap had been immense and the Dutchman edged ahead through turn one as Hamilton emerged from the pits. He had overturned a three-second lead through the stops as the undercut paid off for Red Bull.

With 33 laps remaining the hard tyres were intended to make it to the flag. Hamilton was disappointed and his race engineer Pete Bonnington admitted Mercedes were unsure how he had lost the lead but the team had pitted Bottas first, giving Red Bull the option of trying the undercut against Hamilton.

The front three were evenly matched for pace, line astern within a second of one another, with Hamilton tucked under Verstappen’s wing. The two were swiftly in a race of their own with Hamilton applying huge pressure to the Dutchman.

Verstappen warned that the tyres would not last the race at the pace they were competing as Mercedes appeared to have committed to a second stop. Red Bull duly went to pre-empt them and pitted Verstappen on lap 33. They had been beaten in Spain, unable to react when Mercedes made a late second stop, and did not want to be caught again.

There were 20 laps remaining but Mercedes’ chance of the undercut on Red Bull had gone while Verstappen trailed Hamilton by 16 seconds. Running fresh medium tyres he was very quick, taking two seconds a lap out of the lead. Were this not tense enough the two leaders both had problems with radio communication with their teams.

Mercedes were playing a watching brief with Hamilton to see if he could stay out and hold the lead before committing to trying to make it to the close. Verstappen caught Bottas on lap 43 and passed him a lap later. With nine laps remaining he was five seconds back from Hamilton.

Just as he had in Bahrain, Verstappen closed on fresher tyres but Hamilton held the gap, eking out extraordinary life from his tyres. The gap was down to 1.6 seconds with three laps to go and on the penultimate circuit Verstappen made his advantage count as Hamilton’s grip disappeared, passing him into the Mistral chicane.

It was enough to secure a fine win with Red Bull’s strategy paying off to overcome the Dutchman’s early error.

Daniel Ricciardo was in sixth for McLaren, Pierre Gasly in seventh for AlphaTauri, Fernando Alonso in eighth for Alpine, with Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll in ninth and tenth. – Guardian