Verstappen beats Hamilton in France, Leclerc crashes out

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Red Bull's Max Verstappen tightened his grip on the drivers championship with victory in the 2022 French Grand Prix at Circuit Paul Ricard, with Lewis Hamilton claiming second for Mercedes in his 300th F1 race.

Their respective team mates battled over the final podium spot: Sergio Perez was initially able to resist a series of attacks from George Russell, until a late Virtual Safety Car gave the Briton the edge he needed to snatch third.

Having soaked up the pressure from Verstappen in the opening laps, pole winner Charles Leclerc crashed out at turn 11 on lap 17 - the Ferrari driver's howls of anguish over the team radio accurately reflecting the dreadful damage done to his fast-dwindling title hopes.

The sun continued to heat things up nicely in Le Castellet as the drivers took up their places on the grid for the start of the race. Charles Leclerc had taken pole position with a little help from his Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz, who unfortunately was lined up at the back of the grid alongside Haas' Kevin Magnussen after both incurred grid penalties for taking new engine components this weekend. That left Leclerc on his own at the front, attempting to ward off the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, with Lewis Hamilton starting his 300th Grand Prix from fourth ahead of compatriots Lando Norris and George Russell. All of the top ten were on mediums, the two Aston Martins further back alone in using scrubbed sets, and Valtteri Bottas and Pierre Gasly joining Sainz in picking the hard compound.

Circuit atmosphere - fans in the grandstand. 24.07.2022. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 12, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard, France, Race

When the lights went out to signal the start of the 53-lap race, Leclerc got a good start and hugged the inside to hold the lead into the first corner, while Hamilton made a successful strike on Perez and came close to following up with a move on Verstappen for good measure before settling for third. Russell tried to follow his team mate through, only to open the door for Fernando Alonso to pass him in turns 3 and 4 instead. Both men were already ahead of Norris, who had suffered a poor start dropping him to seventh just ahead of McLaren team mate Daniel Ricciardo. Local hero Esteban Ocon had gained a place and was in ninth ahead of the Astons of Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel, and Magnussen was making quick work from the back and was into 12th by the start of lap 3. However those on the hard tyres were struggling, and Yuki Tsunoda was out after being sent for a spin by contact with Ocon at turn 8 on the first lap, for which the Frenchman was handed a five second penalty.

Leclerc had been unable to significantly pull away from Verstappen and the Red Bull remained in DRS range, the Monegasque having to be smart about where he placed the car to prevent Verstappen from passing him. All the chasing quickly took its toll on the Red Bull's tyres, but it didn't stop the pair pulling away from the duelling Hamilton and Perez, while Russell had already managed to get back past Alonso for fifth.

Yuki Tsunoda (JPN) AlphaTauri AT03 at the start of the race. 24.07.2022. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 12, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard, France, Race

Magnussen was the first man to pit at the end of lap 8, a switch to hard tyres seemingly presaging an aggressive two-stop strategy which was copied by his team mate Mick Schumacher on the next lap. Lap 13 saw Sainz restored to the top ten with a pass on Stroll, by which point Leclerc (on 'Plan B') had finally managed to break out of DRS range at the front from Verstappen, who was now having to be smart with his tyres - as was Perez who had fallen away from the back of Hamilton and was now offering an attractive target for Russell.

Verstappen was the first of the leaders to blink with a pit stop on lap 17, changing to hard tyres and coming back out in P7 behind Alonso and Norris. The McLaren offered no resistance as Verstappen got back to work, but Leclerc had opted to stay out and it looked like he now had the upper hand - until suddenly the Ferrari careened nose-first into the barriers after the rear end let go at high speed into turn 11, even as Leclerc was on the radio talking strategy with the pit wall. A winded Leclerc let out a scream of rage and frustration as his season effectively imploded.

The safety car was scrambled and Hamilton was the first to take advantage of the opportunity for a 'free' pit stop, coming back out in second behind Verstappen having got the jump on Perez. Russell remained in fourth ahead of Alonso, Norris and Ricciardo, while Sainz was now eighth despite a slow stop from a rattled Ferrari pit crew, exacerbated by an unsafe release into the path of Alex Albon for which he has handed a five second penalty to serve at his next pit stop. Rounding out the top ten were Ocon and Stroll with everyone now having pitted (and in the case of the Haas cars, for a second time). The race got back underway on lap 20 with Sainz swiftly picking off the two McLarens to move up to sixth place behind Alonso, who was dealt with in the chicane two laps later.

The Mercedes FIA Safety Car. 24.07.2022. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 12, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard, France, Race

Verstappen was running a conservative race, satisfied with holding a three second lead over Hamilton who was himself managing a one and a half second margin over Perez. Russell's attention was now focussed behind him on Sainz who was now on the medium tyres and closing rapidly. The Spaniard finally slipstreamed his way past the Mercedes down the straight on lap 30. Meanwhile Alonso had dropped a long way back and seemed to be content just to hold up Norris, Ricciardo, Ocon and Stroll and hope that the close running would cause his pursuers to eat up their tyres. Albon was just out of the points in P11, and Gasly's attempt to pass him led to the AlphaTauri running over the chicane which dropped it all the way back to 15th.

With 17 laps remaining, tyre degradation was once again becoming an issue for everyone. Valtteri Bottas pitted for a new set of mediums, dropping him to the back of the field where he joined his Alfa Romeo team mate Zhou Guanyu who had earlier inadvertently tipped Schumacher off the track which had left him with a five second penalty. Magnussen was also in the wars, clashing with Nicholas Latifi on lap 39 and both cars subsequently retiring due to damage.

With the radio messages flying back and forth about whether or when the drivers should be making a second stop, Sainz launched a furious attack on Perez and was less than impressed to be told by his race engineer that he would be pitting next time by. He pulled off the move, then came in where he suffered a slow strop on top of serving his five second penalty which dropped him down to eighth. Russell tried to take advantage of the situation to force his way past Perez but was rebuffed, the pair touching and the Red Bull going off before rejoining ahead of him. Russell's appeals to have Perez penalised fell on deaf ears, and it took Toto Wolff coming on the team radio to calm the Briton down.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W13. 24.07.2022. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 12, French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard, France, Race

With nine laps to go, Verstappen's lead was over nine seconds from Hamilton who was now safely seven seconds clear of the Perez/Russell spat, and Alonso another 20s behind at the head of a growing DRS train consisting of Sainz, Norris, Ocon, Ricciardo and Stroll, with Vettel having passed Albon for P11 and the Williams now easy prey for Gasly to take care of. Schumacher and Bottas were the final cars still running after Zhou was forced to pull over and park on lap 50 with mechanical issues. This triggered a brief Virtual Safety Car for retrieval, although it was too brief to allow anyone to make an opportunistic late pit stop. However confusion about the timing of the end of the VSC caught Perez out, and it was enough to give Russell the opening he needed to snatch third place at the restart.

By this point there were only three laps remaining. Perez tried frantically to regain the lost places, appealing to the Red Bull pit wall when the Mercedes appeared to stray outside track limits, and then pulled up on the back of the the W13 when Russell ran wide at the end of the penultimate lap. However he finally ran out of time before the chequered flag came out. Verstappen duly took the win and was joined on the podium by the two Mercedes drivers, the win giving him a 63 point lead over a dejected Leclerc in the drivers championship,

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