Red Bull gamble pays dividends as Verstappen wins French GP

Max Verstappen made amends for the disappointment of his late tyre failure in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix by winning the French Grand Prix from Lewis Hamilton and extend his lead in the drivers’ championship to 12 points.

The victory was mainly due to a brave decision to pit first and undercut the Mercedes team after Verstappen had run wide to lose his lead to Hamilton into Turn 2. And when Red Bull decided to pit again just after half distance for a two-stop strategy, it meant that the Dutchman reeled in his prey and passed for the lead with just a lap remaining.

Baku winner Sergio Perez made it a doubly successful race for Red Bull Racing by grabbing the final podium position from the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and the McLaren duo of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo. Pierre Gasly again impressed in seventh as Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll rounded out the top ten.

“It was super difficult out there because of the wind,” commented race winner Verstappen after stepping from his car. “One lap you were okay and the next lap you were sliding everywhere, so really difficult to keep the car stable. Once we made the first pit stop you could clearly see on the hard tyres, they were pushing hard from behind but when we made the call to do a two stop, luckily in the end it paid off. We had to work hard for it but of course very rewarding.

“It was difficult because there was quite a lot of back markers to go through but luckily they all did well and we could have a good fight until the end.”

It was a dramatic start, pole sitter Verstappen getting it all wrong in running wide under pressure from Hamilton and conceding position, a brief worry concerning the state of his tyres and front wing. Having been reassured over the radio, he again set about his task, keeping pace with his quarry until the first series of stops.

“I just lost the rear,” explained the Dutchman. “I just tried to correct it, correct it, correct it but it just kept going. You could see the whole race we were fighting each other, so I think it will be like this for the rest of the season.”

Bottas was the first of the front runners to pit on lap 18, swapping his medium compound tyres for a set of hards to take him to the end of the race. A lap later, it was the turn of Verstappen, the Dutchman swooping in before his main rival for the undercut.

It was now time for ‘Hammer Time’, Hamilton putting pedal to the metal. But even a decent 2.2s stop was not quite enough to get him back out ahead of Verstappen, the reigning champ incredulous that he didn’t emerge ahead.

Things were now getting very intense indeed, both Verstappen and Hamilton exchanging words over the radio with their respective engineers. What seemed to be a one stop race now got the engineers second guessing, tyre wear making drivers question whether a second stop was required.

And so it transpired, Verstappen diving in on lap 33 for a new set of yellow banded mediums, throwing the ball straight back into the Mercedes court. Surely Hamilton would follow suit and also pit? Not a bit of it, the Mercedes man opting to stay out and risk Verstappen’s softer tyre dropping off in the latter stages of the race.

It made for an exciting finish that nobody could have reasonably predicted, Verstappen steadily gaining and passing Bottas with 8 laps remaining. Then the grandstand finale, the Red Bull driver eventually seizing his opportunity on the penultimate lap under DRS to outdrag his rival for the lead and race win.

“Congrats to Max, he did a great job today,” reflected a magnanimous Hamilton. “They just had the better car and considering we had such a difficult Friday, I’m just happy with today’s result. Of course, we didn’t win and we were in the lead but I had no tyres left at the end, so unfortunately lost the position. But still it was 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 have to dig deep, figure out why that is whether it’s power or drag but we still have a good package. I’m not really sure how we lost position today but we didn’t know how (the undercut) was going to be strong or not.

“What was really surprising was to run out of the front tyre so early on. But obviously they had a really good strategy and it worked really well for them.”

Hamilton won’t have to wait long for his attempt at revenge, the Formula One circus reconvening in Austria in just a week’s time.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.