Lewis Hamilton has retaken the lead of the world championship with victory in the French GP on a troubled day for title rival Sebastian Vettel.
In the first French round for a decade, a calm and collected Hamilton cruised to a comfortable win ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.
“This is a great day,” said Hamilton, who now leads the standings by 14 points. “It’s the best French GP I’ve ever had.”
But there was drama aplenty elsewhere after Vettel, starting on ultrasoft tyres, crashed into the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas at the first corner.
The stewards blamed Vettel for the collision, imposing a five-second timed penalty on the Ferrari after it limped back to the pits for an emergency repairs.
To add literal injury to insult, Bottas’ car was severely damaged during the incident, leaving the aggrieved Finn with an ill-handling Mercedes to manhandle to the chequered flag while Vettel scythed through the field before taking a second pit-stop with 10 laps remaining to slip back to fifth.
Rather remarkably, and to Hamilton’s astonishment, Vettel was subsequently awarded the ‘driver of the day’ award.
Watching a replay of the Vettel-Bottas clash in the pre-podium cool-down room, a scathing Hamilton exclaimed: “He took him right out. That’s crazy!”.
Unhappy Mercedes chief Niki Lauda also argued that Vettel’s punishment was “too little”.
“Ultimately, when someone destroys your race through an error and it’s kind of a tap on the hand really – they’re allowed to come back and still finish ahead of that person he took out – it doesn’t weigh up,” added Hamilton.
Verstappen, who ran wide at the first corner to avoid the crash, was the principal beneficiary of Vettel’s mistake as he inherited second place. The Dutchman fully capitalised on his fortune but was kept at arm’s length throughout by the faultless Hamilton.
Raikkonen, in need of a positive story as rumours of a 2019 promotion for Ferrari protege Charles Leclerc gather pace, overtook the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo on the closing laps to clinch a welcome podium finish.
Ricciardo, who had set up his car in anticipation of rain which never fell, was further handicapped by car damage from debris, leaving the Australian defenceless to Raikkonen’s surge.
Confounding pre-race predictions that the ultrasofts would rapidly degrade, Raikkonen actually ran longer on his first stint than Hamilton to briefly take the lead when the Mercedes pitted for its one and only stop.
It was the only time all weekend when Hamilton, fastest in both of Friday’s practice sessions as well as qualifying, did not have a clear advantage over the field.
Ferrari argued afterwards they could have challenged for victory but for Vettel’s first-lap calamity. But the 30-second chasm between Raikkonen and Hamilton at the chequered flag argued otherwise.
A delighted Kevin Magnussen collected valuable points for Haas in sixth, holding off Bottas at the last, after a late engine glitch cost the luckless Carlos Sainz a couple of places. A place behind Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Leclerc rounded off a very impressive weekend’s work by taking the final points-paying position in 10th.
Born and bred in Monaco, Leclerc was the closest France came to home success as the country returned to the calendar for the first time since 2008.
Astonishingly, the three bona fide Frenchmen in the 20-man field were the exclusive architects of their own downfall as Romain Grosjean triggered a first-lap crash with compatriots Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon which immediately took the Force India and Toro Rosso out of the race. Grosjean, still without a point this year, finished 11th.
McLaren fared little better. Fernando Alonso spun after being passed by the recovering Vettel and then had to call off his pursuit of the race’s fastest lap in the closing stages when a burst tyre on the Williams of Lance Stroll to bring out the Virtual Safety Car.
On a weekend of new lows for the McLaren team, it was an oddly apt final act.
French GP race result
|1) Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||1:30:11.385|
|2) Max Verstappen||Red Bull||+ 7.090|
|3) Kimi Raikkonen||Ferrari||+ 25.888|
|4) Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull||+ 34.736|
|5) Sebastian Vettel||Ferrari||+ 1:01.935|
|6) Kevin Magnussen||Haas||+ 1:19.364|
|7) Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||+ 1:20.632|
|8) Carlos Sainz||Renault||+ 1:27.184|
|9) Nico Hulkenberg||Renault||+ 1:31.989|
|10) Charles Leclerc||Sauber||+ 1:33.873|
|11) Romain Grosjean||Haas||+ 1 lap|
|12) Stoffel Vandoorne||McLaren||+ 1 lap|
|13) Marcus Ericsson||Sauber||+ 1 lap|
|14) Brendon Hartley||Toro Rosso||+ 1 lap|
|15) Sergey Sirotkin||Williams||+ 1 lap|
|16) Fernando Alonso||McLaren||+ 1 lap|
|17) Lance Stroll||Williams||+ 1 lap|
|Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||DNF|
|Sergio Perez||Force India||DNF|
|Esteban Ocon||Force India||DNF|