Verstappen pushing Hamilton hard in thrilling F1 title race

Sports

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, left, leads next to Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain during the French Formula One Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard racetrack in Le Castellet, southern France, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Lewis Hamilton’s wish for a closer Formula One title fight is coming true.

And Max Verstappen looks like a rival who will take some stopping, judging by his impressive win at the French Grand Prix on Sunday.

It was Verstappen’s second win in three races, and extended his lead over Hamilton to 12 points. Each driver has two pole positions and three wins, with both failing to score points in the other race.

It’s proving a remarkable contest between the 36-year-old defending champion and the 23-year-old would-be usurper to his crown.

A much more exciting one, too, considering Hamilton crushed the competition last year to win by 124 points, by 87 points in 2019, and by 88 in 2018.

It’s looking far, far closer this year.

Verstappen overtook Hamilton on Lap 52 of 53 in Sunday’s race. He used the DRS system to pass him on the inside before zooming to the 13th victory of his career. A bonus point for the fastest lap made it a great day for Red Bull, which had never beaten Mercedes on the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France.

It was a close call, though, with Red Bull’s gamble on a two-stop strategy for Verstappen countered by a one-stopper for Hamilton as Mercedes kept him out on the same tires.

With five laps left, Hamilton was 3.5 seconds ahead.

Verstappen quickly ate into that lead, kept calm and then positioned himself perfectly to attack on a long straight in the way Hamilton has done countless times in his record 98 wins.

“When we made the call to do a two-stop, luckily it paid off,” Verstappen said. “We had to work hard for it.”

Verstappen, who won by 2.9 seconds, has 131 points to Hamilton’s 119.

Red Bull’s Sergio Perez sneaked past a dejected Valtteri Bottas to take third place and strengthen Red Bull’s lead in the constructors’ championship: 215 points to Mercedes’ 178.

“We pulled the trigger and we went with the two-stopper and it worked. And great job from Sergio making the one-stop work,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “The strategy guys are working the numbers and they go for it.”

Verstappen took an impressive pole position ahead of Hamilton and his teammate Bottas.

Verstappen got away cleanly, but then made a basic error cutting the kerb on Turn 1 and gifted Hamilton the lead.

“In the beginning it was so difficult with the wind. Really difficult to keep the car stable,” Verstappen said. “Just lost the rear, tried to correct it, correct it, correct it, but it kept going.”

He made up for it, and heads confidently into the Styrian GP in a week’s time on Red Bull’s home track; followed by the Austrian GP a week later on the same circuit, nestled in the Styrian mountains.

Verstappen has already matched his career best for a season with three wins and looks a major threat for Hamilton, who is trying to win a record eighth F1 title to move one ahead of Michael Schumacher.

Red Bull has thrown down a huge marker to Mercedes, which has won every drivers’ and constructors’ championship since 2014. The previous four years were Red Bull doubles with Sebastian Vettel at the wheel, and Mercedes is under pressure now.

“I think it will be like this the rest of the season,” Verstappen said, smiling.

Red Bull have won three straight races, the other going to Perez, and Hamilton is sounding concerned.

“We’ve got to find some pace, that’s for sure,” the British driver said. “Most of the time we lost today was just the straights.”

Lando Norris finished fifth for McLaren, again beating his more experienced teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who was sixth ahead of Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso in eighth.

It was another disappointing day for Bottas, who is fighting to keep his seat next year.

He is only fifth in the standings behind Norris and Perez.

First, Bottas was overtaken by Verstappen after an undercut on Red Bull failed to work and then Perez overtook him almost as easily as Verstappen had done.

“Why did no one listen to me when I say this should’ve been a two-stopper?” the frustrated Finnish driver barked on team radio.

Verstappen led by three seconds when his team changed tires for the second time on Lap 34, anticipating a similar move from Mercedes.

It looked like Red Bull may have got it wrong, but Verstappen proved them right to strike a blow in a thrilling title fight.

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