Charles Leclerc has crashed out while leading the French Grand Prix, handing the victory to Max Verstappen. The mistake drops the Ferrari driver 63 points behind Verstappen in the driver standings, strengthening his chances of defending his world title.
The win at Paul Ricard secures Verstappen’s seventh win through 12 races this season, upping his career total to 27 victories. But the 24-year-old said his lead in the title race is misleading as Red Bull and Ferrari have similar pace this season.
“Of course, it’s a great lead but a lot of things can happen. It’s probably a bit bigger than it should have been when you look at the performance of the two cars,” he said.
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“We still need a bit more one-lap race. I think Budapest (the Hungarian Grand Prix) will be a bit of a struggle for us and Ferrari will be really, really quick.”
Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton finished second in his 300th grand prix start — his fourth consecutive podium and highest finish in what’s so far been a winless season — while teammate George Russell suddenly passed Sergio Perez following a late race restart to give Mercedes its first double podium of the year.
Hamilton estimated sweating out “about three kilos” as track temperatures hit 51 degrees at the Paul Ricard Circuit in southeastern France.
“It was a tough race because my drinks bottle didn’t work,” he said.
“By lap 20 I was like, ‘I really could do with a drink.’
“But what a great result considering we’ve been so far off these guys all weekend.”
Hamilton lay on his back in the cool-down room as Russell watched a replay of the action.
Leclerc’s race ended on lap 18 when he lost the rear of his car coming out of turn 11, spinning 360 degrees before crashing into a tire wall. After starting from pole, Leclerc could not speak at first, breathing heavily in his helmet before telling his team the mishap was caused by a throttle problem.
He then screamed a furious, “Nooooooooooo!”
It’s the third time this season Leclerc has failed to finish a race, while Ferrari has had seven DNFs through 12 races. Leclerc’s failure Sunday came two weeks after a throttle problem almost cost him victory at the Austrian GP.
Leclerc, who is only seven points ahead of third-place Perez in the title battle, later said the crash was human error.
“We’ll add things up at the end of the season, but if we’re 25 or 30 points short at the season I can only blame myself,” he said.
“I couldn’t go into reverse, but those are small details. You just can’t put a car into the wall.
“It was an error. It was a bit strange how I lost (the car).
“If I stay at this level I certainly don’t deserve to win the championship. Two mistakes, here and Imola, that’s a bit much.”
Verstappen was attempted early and Leclerc held him off, but the Dutchman went for an undercut on lap 17 with hard tyres. Ferrari didn’t attempt to counter Red Bull’s strategy, only for Leclerc to crash one lap later.
Verstappen asked over the radio if Leclerc was all right.
“I’m told he is, Max, thanks for asking,” his team replied.
As drivers switched tires under the safety car, Ferrari’s mistakes continued as Carlos Sainz received a five-second penalty for an unsafe release that almost led to a collision with a Williams car.
Sainz had passed Russell and Perez when his team told him to pit for new tires with 10 laps left.
“Come on, guys, I can’t believe you told me to box then,” Sainz grumbled over the radio.
“I don’t know why we boxed. I do not understand.”
After the race, he explained his position.
“At Ferrari, we get criticized for things other teams might go through in their pit stop window. We are not the disaster people seem to say we are,” he said.
“Yes I wanted to stay out, I maybe saw a podium position. The team has a lot more data on their screens. They did it with the best intentions and best spirit.
“My point of view is that if I couldn’t pass Checo, I would box. The moment I passed him, I thought, ‘See if I could pull away.’ At that stage, the numbers said it was impossible I would make it to the end. In the moment, my feeling was different but I didn’t see the numbers.”
Earlier, Russell tried to squeeze past Perez on the inside with their cars touching wheels. Perez went off the track and cut the corner to come back ahead, with Russell asking the stewards for the position back. The contact was deemed a racing incident, but Russell eventually passed a distracted Perez at the end of the virtual safety car.
“The restart was tasty,” Russell said.
“I got a really nice run and timed it perfectly. It was pretty sweet.”
Perez finished fourth ahead of Sainz, who earned a bonus point for the fastest lap.
Fernando Alonso of Alpine finished sixth, followed by Lando Norris of McLaren, Esteban Ocon of Alpine, Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren and Lance Stroll of Aston Martin to round out the points.
Approaching the midway point of the 53-lap race, Mick Schumacher’s Haas was clipped by Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo. Zhou received a 5-second penalty for the incident.
Sainz started at the back of the grid with Kevin Magnussen as penalty for changes to their engines ahead of the race.
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