Verstappen extends F1 championship lead with late pass in tense French Grand Prix
- Red Bull driver passes Lewis Hamilton on penultimate lap to claim third win of the season
- Verstappen’s championship margin over reigning champion now 12 points
- Hamilton settles for second despite leading majority of the race
Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen extended his championship lead in the 2021 Formula One World Championship, after a late pass on title rival Lewis Hamilton at the French Grand Prix.
The Red Bull Racing driver started from pole position at the Paul Ricard circuit, but conceded the lead in the first sequence of corners to Hamilton, who led most of the race, only to be re-passed by Verstappen on the penultimate lap. Sergio Perez also passed a Mercedes towards the end of the contest, usurping Valtteri Bottas to claim third place.
Verstappen secured pole position in qualifying on Saturday, over a quarter of a second clear of Hamilton, but looked to have made life difficult for himself just moments after the race start. The Dutchman lost control after rounding the first corner, and went over the run-off area, handing the lead to Hamilton.
The British seven time World Champion held his advantage until the first round of pit stops, with Bottas the first of the lead trio to pit at the end of lap 17. Verstappen came in the next time around, and used the pace afforded by his fresher rubber to pass Hamilton when he pitted another lap later, despite a slightly slower pit stop.
Verstappen reclaimed the lead when teammate Perez pitted for his only stop on lap 24, but had to withstand massive pressure from the Mercedes duo early in the second phase of the race, with Hamilton and Mercedes well within striking range.
The Dutchman’s Red Bull team then opted to take a risk and pit again for fresh medium compound tyres on lap 32, while the Mercedes duo, on harder tyres, were planning on running until the end of the race.
That stop dropped him to fourth, behind Perez, but the Mexican proved to be little trouble as he moved aside for his teammate, allowing Verstappen a clear run at the Mercedes duo in the final third of the race.
He proved much faster than his rivals, carving a couple of seconds a lap out of the Mercedes pair immediately after his stop. The gap had been as large as 18 seconds, but he caught Bottas by lap 44. Verstappen got a run on the Finnish driver on the first part of the Mistral Straight, and as Bottas defended at the chicane half way down it, Verstappen was able to go around the outside and move past onto the second section of the straight.
Mercedes had hoped that Verstappen would be held up behind Bottas for a couple of laps, with the dirty air effect produced by F1 cars causing tyres to degrade when following immediately behind. But the swift dispatch of Bottas meant Hamilton was now in trouble, just five seconds up the road, and three quarters of a second a lap slower with nine laps remaining.
Hamilton was able to improve his pace despite his significantly older tyres, and made use of backmarkers to keep the gap at around five seconds for a handful of laps.
But once the pair had cleared the lapped traffic, Verstappen again made serious inroads into Hamilton’s advantage, and was just 0.7 seconds behind starting the last lap but one.
Like with Bottas, Verstappen’s move came at the chicane, with Hamilton defending the inside but the Red Bull was still able to fly up the inside to reclaim the lead.
Verstappen then pulled away across the final lap and a half to win by almost three seconds from Hamilton, while Perez’s third place allowed the Red Bull team to extend their advantage over Mercedes in the teams’ championship.
Verstappen now leads the championship by 12 points over Hamilton, while Red Bull holds a 37 point advantage from Mercedes in the constructors’ standings.
There’s now just a week to go until the Styrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring next weekend, with the Austrian Grand Prix taking place at the same circuit just a week later.
Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.