Max Verstappen fought back to pass Lewis Hamilton and take a brilliant win in the French Grand Prix to extend his championship lead.
Verstappen’s Red Bull team gambled on an extra pit stop, sacrificing the lead to come back at Hamilton on fresher tyres to pass the Mercedes with two laps to go.
And Mercedes were ruing a strategic blunder in which they left Hamilton out one lap too long and lost the lead.
That came after Verstappen had himself gifted Hamilton first place with a mistake at the first corner of the race.
After a thrilling see-saw battle between the two title contenders and their teams, Verstappen moves into a 12-point championship lead after seven races following his third victory in a row.
Red Bull’s Sergio Perez took the final podium position from Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas in the closing laps as the Finn’s tyres faded.
How did that happen?
Paul Ricard in the south of France is notorious for producing dull races but this one was a stunner as the battle between Verstappen and Hamilton swung back and forth.
But Mercedes will rue their error in allowing Verstappen back into the lead after they followed the Dutchman’s on-track error on the first lap with their own in the strategy room.
“This one’s on us,” chief strategist James Vowles said on the radio to Hamilton after the race, acknowledging the error. “Thank you for doing everything you could to recover that race.”
Verstappen appeared to have gifted Hamilton an unexpected opportunity when he slid wide at the first corner and ran off track allowing Hamilton to slip into the lead.
That put Mercedes in control of the race, but they surrendered their position with a bad error in Hamilton’s pit-stop timing.
Hamilton was leading with Verstappen second and Bottas third entering the pit stop period, and Mercedes called in Bottas first, trying to grab second from Red Bull.
Bringing Hamilton in the next time around, as Red Bull did with Verstappen, would have secured the lead for Hamilton and he likely would have been able to control the race from the front for a comfortable victory thereafter.
Instead, they left Hamilton out for a second lap and Verstappen used his new tyres to produce a brilliant out lap, and when Hamilton emerged from the pits, Verstappen swept past him into the lead.
Hamilton hounded Verstappen over the next few laps, apparently much faster than Verstappen, as both drivers radioed to their pits that their tyres were already struggling.
Hamilton told his team to make sure they brought him in before Verstappen for a second stop, but Red Bull again jumped first, bringing Verstappen in for a second stop on lap 32, only 13 laps after his first stop.
Verstappen rejoined nearly 20 seconds behind but immediately began closing in on the Mercedes.
He caught and passed Bottas on lap 44 and then homed in on Hamilton, diving past into the chicane on lap 52, with a lap and a half to go.
A frustrated Bottas, who radioed his team to swearingly ask why they had not believed him when he said it would be a two-stop race, dropped back and lost third to Perez on lap 49 as Red Bull rubbed salt into Mercedes’ wounds.
The side show
Lando Norris was best of the rest for McLaren, after a strong race despite dropping out of the top 10 on the first lap, passing several cars in superb style as he climbed back through the field.
His team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was one of them and the Australian finished sixth, ahead of Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly, Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and the Aston Martins of Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll.
The Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were running fifth and seventh after the first lap but faded badly in the race to finish out of the points, Sainz in 11th and Leclerc, in terrible trouble with his front tyres, in 16th.
Driver of the day
Has to be Verstappen. A bad error on the first lap gifted Hamilton the lead and could have been extremely costly, but with help from aggressive, positive strategy from his team he drove with controlled brilliance to recover after a second pit stop and inflict on Hamilton the same pain the world champion had on Verstappen in Spain. The difference was that the Red Bull did not appear to be the fastest car – and yet Verstappen still won.
What happens next?
This was the first of three races on consecutive weekends, and the next two are on Red Bull’s home track in Austria. The battle – one for the ages – continues in the glorious setting of the Stryian mountains.