LE CASTELLET, France (AP) — Max Verstappen won the French Grand Prix on Sunday after Charles Leclerc crashed out while leading, a mistake that dropped the Ferrari driver 63 points behind the defending Formula One champion.
Verstappen’s seventh win through 12 races this season upped his career total to 27 victories, all with Red Bull. He said his lead in the title race is misleading because Red Bull and Ferrari have been fairly even 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,” Verstappen said. “We still need a bit more one-lap race. I think Budapest (Hungary) 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 — his fourth consecutive podium and highest finish in what’s so far been a winless season — while teammate George Russell passed Sergio Perez of Red Bull following a late restart to give Mercedes its first double podium of the year.
“That’s an incredible result for the team, great job George,” said Hamilton, who estimated sweating out “about three kilos” as track temperatures hit 51 degrees Celsius (124 Fahrenheit) at the Paul Ricard Circuit in southeastern France.
“It was a tough race because my drinks bottle didn’t work,” Hamilton said. “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.
“By Lap 20 I was like, ‘I really could do with a drink,’” Hamilton said. “Maybe the water evaporated.”
Hamilton’s first win with Mercedes came in Hungary in 2013. H e’s won a record eight times at the Hungaroring, twice as many as Michael Schumacher, and F1 races there next week.
“I hope the car feels good there,” Hamilton said. “I so love that track.”
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. 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 “Noooooooooo!”
It’s the third time this season Leclerc has failed to finish a race, while Ferrari has had seven DNF’s 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 driver 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,” Leclerc said. “I couldn’t go into reverse, but those are small details. You just can’t put a car into the wall.”
Verstappen was tentative early and Leclerc held him off, but the Dutchman went for an undercut on Lap 17 with hard tires. Ferrari didn’t attempt to counter Red Bull’s strategy, only for Leclerc to crash one lap later.
“It was an error. It was a bit strange how I lost (the car),” Leclerc said. “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 asked over 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. Carlos Sainz Jr. 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. “I don’t know why we boxed. I don’t understand.”
After the race, he explained his position.
“At Ferrari we get super criticized for things other teams might go through in their pit stop window. We are not the disaster people seem to say we are,” Sainz 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.”
Meanwhile, Russell tried to squeeze past Perez on the inside and they touched wheels. Perez went off and cut the corner to come back ahead with Russell asking for the position back. Stewards deemed it a racing incident, and Russell eventually passed him anyway.
“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 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 rounding out the top 10.
Approaching the midway point of the 53-lap race, Mick Schumacher’s Haas was clipped by Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo and Zhou received a 5-second penalty.
Sainz started at the back of the grid with Kevin Magnussen as penalty for changes to their engines ahead of the race.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.