Verstappen beats Hamilton in thrilling battle for French Grand Prix victory

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LE CASTELLET, France -- Max Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton to victory at the French Grand Prix after a thrilling battle between the two title rivals at the Circuit Paul Ricard.

Vertsappen, who started from pole position, lost the lead at the first corner, gained it back at the first round of pit stops, conceded it when he made a second pit stop and retook it on track with an overtaking move on Hamilton on the penultimate lap.

Hamilton, whose Mercedes team attempted to outfox Verstappen by trying to go the distance with a single pit stop rather than mimicking Red Bull's two-stop approach, had to settle for second as the seven-time world champion was powerless to resist Verstappen coming past on fresher tyres. 

On the team radio after the race, Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles spoke to Hamilton and took the blame for the defeat, saying: "This one's on us".

The race was similar to the season-opener in Bahrain, with Hamilton trying to make an old set of tyres last until the finish while Verstappen took on fresh rubber to attack the Mercedes.

But whereas Verstappen blew his chance by overtaking off the track in Bahrain, he seized his opportunity in France and with it extended his lead in the championship to 12 points over Hamilton.

Verstappen thinks his fight with Hamilton will be close all season. 

"Once we made the first pit stop then you could clearly see, on the hard tyres, they were pushing me hard from behind," Verstappen said. "But then when we made the call to do the two-stop then in the end that paid off.

"We had to work hard for it but, of course, very rewarding."

He added: "As you could see, the whole race we were fighting each other so I think it will be like this for the rest of the season."

Verstappen's Red Bull teammate, Sergio Perez, finished third after passing Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas four laps from the end. 

Lando Norris finished fifth ahead of McLaren teammate Daniel Ricciardo and the Alpha Tauri of Pierre Gasly.

Fernando Alonso took eighth for Alpine ahead of the two Aston Martins of Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll, who started the race on the last row of the grid.

Ferrari made a strong start to the race, but faded in the second half, with Carlos Sainz finishing 11th and Charles Leclerc 16th.

The story of the race

Verstappen led Hamilton away at the start of the race but ran wide at Turn 1 and cut the apex of Turn 2, allowing Hamilton to pass for the lead.

Mercedes appeared to have the race in control early on, with Hamilton extending his lead to three seconds over Verstappen, but the situation was turned on its head at the first round of pit stops.

Bottas, in third place, was the first to pit among the front runners on lap 17, which appeared to be a deliberate move by Mercedes to put pressure on Verstappen to do the same a lap later.

Red Bull responded by pitting Verstappen on lap 18, which kept him ahead of Bottas and should have allowed Hamilton to do the same on lap 19.

But Verstappen pushed hard on his first lap out of the pits and found enough performance to pass Hamilton as the Mercedes driver emerged from his own tyre change.

Hamilton then kept the pressure on his title rival for following ten laps, but was unable to find a way past despite activating his drag reduction system overtaking aid lap after lap.

The fast pace of the race took its toll on the tyres on the front running cars, and on lap 32 Verstappen pitted to sacrifice the lead and take on a new set of medium tyres.

Had Red Bull not made the move, Mercedes would have likely done something similar, putting Verstappen in a similar position to the race he lost in Spain last month. 

Verstappen dropped to fourth place as he emerged from the pits -- behind Hamilton, Bottas and teammate Sergio Perez -- with a 20 second gap to Hamilton in the lead with 20 laps remaining.

Passing Perez was predictably easy as the Mexican made way for his teammate on lap 35 and Verstappen then closed in on Bottas by lap 44, gaining over a second a lap on Hamilton in the process.

Bottas put up a fight at the chicane on the Mistral straight, but ran wide in the first part of the corner, allowing Verstappen to pass on the following straight.

With nine laps remaining it turned into a straight fight between Verstappen and Hamilton with 4.7s between the two as they started lap 46 of 53.

Crucially, there was lapped traffic between the two drivers and the gap extended to over five seconds with seven laps remaining as the race appeared to be slipping from Verstappen's grasp.

But once in clear air, Verstappen started to tear into Hamilton's lead once more, setting up a thrilling finish in the final four laps where he finally got a clear view of the rear of Hamilton's Mercedes.

With two laps remaining, Verstappen got a run at Hamilton into the chicane and with the help of DRS moved to the inside and took the lead. 

Victory followed for Verstappen one and half laps later along with the fastest lap, which gave him an extra bonus point.