Max Verstappen has pulled off a masterful strategy to pass Lewis Hamilton for victory with two laps to go in a nail-biting French Grand Prix.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
Verstappen started on pole but lost the lead almost immediately when he ran wide on exit, allowing Hamilton to slip through and control the pace of the first stint.
Valtteri Bottas held third off the line and was on the attack, the Finn bouncing back strongly from his horror race in Azerbaijan two weeks ago. He sandwiched Verstappen behind the leader, and Mercedes opted for aggressive tactics by bringing in Bottas, not Hamilton, first at the pit stops to try to strategise him into second.
Verstappen stopped on the next lap, just maintaining position, but Mercedes waited a crucial extra lap before bringing Hamilton in for his own new set of tyres.
It was an error, and by keeping his ageing tyres for an extra lap Hamilton found himself rejoining the race behind Verstappen, demoted to second.
The Mercedes cars were still faster, but try as they might to force their way through, Verstappen was too quick down the straights, allowing him to defend in the key overtaking zones and maintain a delicate lead.
But the fighting was coming at the expense of severe tyre degradation, and there was concern that getting to the chequered flag without a second stop may not be feasible — Bottas said as much over team radio early in the race, though the team chose not to act.
Red Bull Racing seized the initiative. With Verstappen warning he couldn’t defend against the faster cars on old rubber to the end, the team brought him in for new tyres with 20 laps to go, dropping him to fourth behind the Mercedes cars and teammate Sergio Perez, who was running an alternative strategy.
Perez’s presence was crucial, preventing Hamilton from following Verstappen in lest he get caught behind the Mexican.
Now lapping up to two seconds a lap faster, Verstappen as waved past Perez and muscled his way through Bottas to give himself a 10-lap,
He had 18 seconds to make up to Hamilton, and after being waved into third by Perez he made short work of Bottas on lap 39 and closed to three seconds of the lead with five laps remaining.
He didn’t need them all, and on the penultimate lap he breezed into the lead down the long back straight to record a famous win.
“Luckily it paid off!” Verstappen said of his strategic gamble. “The whole race we were fighting each other. I think it will be like this for the rest of the season.”
Hamilton came home second, partly relieved to have minimised his car’s troubled build-up to the weekend through practice but warning that his team had work to do to keep itself in title contention.
“Of course we didn’t win and we were in the lead … but still it was a great race,” he said. “We’ve got to find some pace, that’s for sure.”
Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas battled for third late in the race, but Perez had delayed his sole pit stop until almost halfway through the race, earning him tyres seven laps fresher that eased his way past the second Red Bull Racing machine.
“A great race, great strategy from the team,” he said. “I’m happy we won the race today — good points for the team.”
Bottas was filthy to drop off the podium, angrily radioing his team during the race that he’d warned his tyres wouldn’t go the distance.
“Why the f*** did no-one listen to me when I said this was going to be a two-stopper?” he swore, underlining the difficult day Mercedes had.
McLaren teammates Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo battled in reverse order in the first part of the race, but a better strategy with a late pit stop got Norris ahead at the end, leaving Ricciardo to defend against Pierre Gasly and Fernando Alonso in the closing laps.
Aston Martin teammates Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll drove superb recovery drivers from 12th and 19th through strategy to score the final points of the race.