Max Verstappen wins French F1 GP as Charles Leclerc crashes out

Should this Formula One season end with a whimper rather than a bang, the French Grand Prix will surely mark the moment when its explosive potential fizzled out.

As the Paul Ricard circuit sweltered in the punishing sunshine, it seems the heat had got to Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc – a momentary lapse, a moment of weakness and his title hopes were left in tatters. A moment expressed in a heart-rending, guttural cry of frustration.

The race was won for Red Bull by Max Verstappen – a driver who has had few such moments this year – while Leclerc crashed out from a comfortable lead ensuring Mercedes returned their best result of the season, with second and third for Lewis Hamilton and George Russell respectively.

For Leclerc the mistake was as uncharacteristic as it was almost painful to watch. Crashes in F1 rarely last more than seconds but witnessing this, time seemed to slow.

Leading Verstappen by more than two seconds, the Monégasque driver held all the cards until he simply overcooked it into turn 11 on lap 17. Leclerc lost his Ferrari’s rear, and with a twitch and an ungainly pirouette he sailed off on to the wall. The car was nose deep in the barriers, the driver disconsolate as the meaning of his error hit home and he screamed his rage into the ether and the now ringing ears of his team.

This was high drama and human emotion writ large. Verstappen, meanwhile, continued lapping with serenity; unruffled and untroubled but considerate enough to enquire whether Leclerc had emerged unhurt.

With all of Ferrari’s travails this season, poor reliability and poor strategy calls, the Scuderia can ill‑afford driver error to add to what will be making their fans see red and even casual observers of the sport to yearn for some consistency at the team, if only for a decent fight out front.

With the Ferrari very quick from the off, Leclerc had taken a 46-point lead over Verstappen by the third round in Australia. Talk was of how Verstappen could come back. Yet Ferrari found a way to facilitate it with failures and poor calls such that the Dutchman now enjoys a 63-point lead over Leclerc with 10 races remaining.

Now consideration has turned to how early Verstappen might wrap this up. If Leclerc is not disheartened at this stage, he is made of stern stuff indeed. A trait that will probably serve him well this season at Ferrari.

He was both honest and absolutely damning in his assessment of what had happened. It was an acknowledgment of the scale of his error that he conceded had left his title ambitions in pieces.

“I tried to take too much around the outside and probably put a wheel somewhere dirty,” he said. “It’s my fault and if I keep doing mistakes like this then I deserve to not win the championship.

“I’ve been saying I think I’m performing at my highest level in my career but if I keep making those mistakes then it’s pointless to perform at a very high level. I’m losing too many points. It’s unacceptable, I just need to get on top of those things.”

His failure ensured Verstappen’s seventh win this season was an easy run. Yet the early stages had suggested just how tightly contested this fight could have been if Leclerc and Ferrari had stayed the course. Leclerc held his lead from pole but he and Verstappen were inseparable on track, Leclerc driving a strong defensive line to the Dutchman who had slightly superior race pace.

A lengthy battle looked on only for all the tension to dissipate in a puff of gravel dust as Leclerc careered off track. Verstappen was untouchable from there to the flag, and played down his points advantage.

Leclerc had made a minor error in Imola, a spin while pushing for second, that dropped him to a sixth‑place finish. It cost him seven points but he acknowledged that should the title be lost by those seven and the 25 he dropped here, he can point the finger only at himself. He has championship pedigree – that much is clear – but now in his fifth season has been around Formula One long enough to know the vital role driver execution plays in turning it into titles.

Hamilton was enormously pleased with returning another competitive race. With better pace than he had in qualifying he still could not catch Verstappen but was a solid and deserved second. His teammate Russell was also combative, enjoying a feisty battle with Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez, who finished fourth, before the British driver pounced at turn 14 after a late virtual safety car restart to opportunistically take the final podium place.

Mercedes stuck to their task then but their championship is long gone and they know it. Leclerc can at least cling to some hope but it will be scant consolation for a driver who demands better of himself. Putting this particular, painful moment behind him will be key if he is to mount any comeback and reignite this fight.

Carlos Sainz was fifth for Ferrari, Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon were sixth and eighth for Alpine, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo seventh and ninth for McLaren, and Lance Stroll finished in 10th for Aston Martin.