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Max Verstappen back on top with a 2nd consecutive French Grand Prix win
Oracle Red Bull Racing's reigning world champion wins for the second year in a row at the Circuit Paul Ricard and extends his Drivers' Championship lead to a whopping 63 points after Ferrari faltered.
What did offer a crumb of comfort for the reigning world champion was that Sunday's 12th race of the 2022 Formula One season was held over 53 laps, not one. Mix in another sweltering European summer's day and strategic options that could snooker Ferrari, and Verstappen was up for the fight against pole-sitter Charles Leclerc. As it turned out, it was a fight that never eventuated.
Verstappen's seventh win of the season was his second in succession at the Circuit Paul Ricard and extended his world championship lead to 63 points. However, it wasn't in the manner anyone saw coming, or how the Dutchman particularly wanted. For the seventh time this season, Leclerc started a Grand Prix from pole and for the third time in those seven races, the Monegasque driver didn't see the chequered flag.
The key moment came on Lap 18, after an opening stint to the race where Verstappen stalked Leclerc, the pair in a class of their own and clearing off from the rest of the field. Two laps after Verstappen had pitted, Leclerc was preparing for his own first stop, but never made it to pit lane. The Ferrari crashed heavily into the Turn 11 barriers, the third time this year (after the Spanish and Azerbaijan Grands Prix) he's retired when leading a race.
From there, Verstappen's biggest potential pitfalls were tyre degradation and a baking-hot track surface that peaked at 55°C, but the 24-year-old had everything under control, his 27th career victory coming with a cushion of 10.587s.
Behind Verstappen, things were more fraught. When the dust settled, Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and George Russell took second and third places for the first double-rostrum result for the team this year, with Hamilton achieving a season-best result in his landmark 300th Grand Prix start.
Russell emerged ahead of Verstappen's team-mate Sergio Pérez after a ferocious late-race battle, the Mexican finishing fourth after recovering from a tardy start that dropped him behind Hamilton in the first corner from third on the grid.
Here's how a decisive day for Verstappen shook out in the sunshine in France.
Verstappen's advantage balloons
Red Bull went into Sunday's race holding the strategic cards, with Leclerc's team-mate Carlos Sainz starting from the back of the grid after an engine penalty. It left Leclerc on pole with Verstappen and Pérez right behind him. It offered a tantalising race in prospect between two machines with very different strengths, Ferrari's advantage in the corners in stark contrast to Red Bull's searing straight-line speed.
Leclerc never faltered from pole, but Verstappen never let him rest. With no pressure from behind, the Dutchman was content to bide his time and play his strategic card first, pitting for hard tyres on Lap 16 and waiting for his chance to strike later on. The road to victory opened up much sooner than he expected and his world championship advantage swelled to more than two wins' worth of points with 10 races to go this season.
"I think we had really good pace from the start and I was putting pressure on Charles, but following around here with this heat and with the tyres overheating a lot ... I could never really get close for a move," Verstappen said. "It was unlucky for Charles, I hope he's OK. I think it would have been a really good battle until the end, but unfortunately we never got to that. I feel sorry for him, it's not nice.
"From there onwards, you never know how the race is going to go. I just did my race and looked after the tyres until the end."
A late-race virtual safety car caused by the retirement of Alfa Romeo driver Zhou Guanyu raised the prospect of a pit stop with just three laps to go for fresh rubber. However, Verstappen's advantage was such that he could nurse his ailing tyres over the final laps to bank a win that was more comfortable than he or the team imagined would have been possible.
Verstappen's victory broke a trend at Paul Ricard; since 2018, when the track returned to the calendar after a 28-year absence, the pole position winner had also won the race. His 27th career victory also saw him draw level with three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart for eighth place in the all-time winners' list; Nigel Mansell (31 wins) is next in Verstappen's sights.
Checo on his back foot
Third on the grid for Pérez represented a good recovery from a tricky Friday at Paul Ricard, where the Mexican described himself as "not overly comfortable" with the car, as he was just 10th after the opening two practice sessions.
The Mexican looked set to play a role in Verstappen's pursuit of Leclerc, but was jumped by Hamilton off the start and couldn't get by the Mercedes again in the early going. He inherited third when Leclerc retired, but came under heavy pressure from Russell in the closing stages and the Briton jumped ahead when racing resumed after the virtual safety car, just three laps from the finish.
Another 12 world championship points consolidated third place in the Drivers' Standings and saw Oracle Red Bull Racing extend its advantage to 82 points atop the Constructors' table, but Pérez missed out on the podium for the third time in the past four races.
"It was a difficult afternoon," he conceded. "We should have been on the podium. Mercedes were quite strong… I struggled quite a bit for traction, it was quite an issue. Just not a good day."
Upgrades bring no joy for AlphaTauri
Scuderia AlphaTauri brought a significant upgrade package to its AT03 machine for the French Grand Prix, but the changes – a new floor, updated diffuser and new engine cover the most striking – couldn't break a dry run that extended to a fourth straight race.
Yuki Tsunoda was on song on Saturday, the Japanese driver qualifying eighth to equal his season-best showing from Azerbaijan, but contact with Esteban Ocon's Alpine on the opening lap at the chicane saw Tsunoda drop to last place with significant damage to the left-hand side of his car – a clash that saw Ocon hit with a five-second time penalty.
The luckless Tsunoda was eventually forced to retire on Lap 20 and he's scored only one point (10th in Baku) in the past eight races.
Team-mate Pierre Gasly had high hopes – not to mention a grandstand named after him – for his home Grand Prix, but was mired in 16th after qualifying, missing out on a Q2 berth by a miniscule 0.017s.
The Frenchman wasn't able to make much progress in the race, eventually finishing 12th and three seconds adrift of the points-paying places.
New cars deliver and high drama for Sainz
AlphaTauri was one of a host of teams to bring significant updates to their machines to kick-off the second half of the season, with McLaren and Mercedes in particular racing with cars that looked strikingly different to those that competed in Austria just a fortnight previously.
Mercedes's double-podium came as something of a pleasant surprise to the reigning Constructors' champions, while McLaren scored points with both drivers, too. Lando Norris (seventh) led home Daniel Ricciardo (ninth), with the two drivers separated by eight seconds at the chequered flag.
Of the rest, Leclerc's team-mate Sainz had the most action-packed Grand Prix. Starting from 19th, he ran as high as third, fought with Pérez, was issued a five-second time penalty for an unsafe release at his pit stop right into the path of Alex Albon's Williams and eventually set the fastest lap of the race on Lap 51 of 53 to finish fifth and retain fourth in the Drivers' Championship by a single point from George Russell.
Hungary before the holidays
Budapest awaits the F1 travelling roadshow for the Hungarian Grand Prix next weekend, July 31. It's the fourth race in five weekends and always has a 'school's out' vibe as the final round before F1 enjoys a month-long summer break before Belgium at the end of August.
The twisting, tyre-torturing Hungaroring circuit on the outskirts of Budapest is one of the longer-standing 'modern' tracks on the calendar, having debuted in 1986. It's been likened to 'Monaco without the walls' for its 14-turn layout where one corner rapidly precedes the next and the drivers are only really able to rest on the downhill 900m start-finish straight that leads into the Turn 1 hairpin, the best bet for overtaking.
Verstappen has rarely struggled for speed in Hungary and has finished second there on two occasions (2019 and 2020), but is yet to see the view from the podium's top step to join Australian duo Mark Webber (2010) and Daniel Ricciardo (2014) as winners for Red Bull Racing at the circuit.
Pérez, meanwhile, is very much due a change of fortune in Hungary after being caught up in the wet-weather mayhem that eliminated five cars at the first corner a year ago.
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