Le Castellet (France) (AFP) – A masterful Lewis Hamilton powered back to the top of the world championship Sunday when he roared to a polished lights-to-flag win for Mercedes at the French Grand Prix.
The four-time world champion, making the most of his upgraded Mercedes engine, led from start to finish, bar one lap following a pit stop, as he claimed his first win in France, his third this year and the 65th of his career.
“This is a great day,” said reigning champion Hamilton. “I enjoyed the race, for me the best French Grand Prix I have ever had. The weather was great, too, and the fans were really enthusiastic.
“I am so grateful to my guys for a solid weekend. My guys continuously push the boundaries and they never give up.”
Hamilton came home seven seconds clear of Max Verstappen with Kimi Raikkonen taking third for Ferrari after passing his Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo with five laps remaining.
Hamilton’s consummate performance came after fellow four-time champion and pre-race leader Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari crashed into his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas on the opening lap.
Both suffered damage and, under an early Safety Car, limped to the pits for repairs.
They rejoined from the back of the field to finish fifth and seventh respectively, either side of Kevin Magnussen of Haas, who was sixth.
Vettel had to serve a five seconds penalty, which he took at his second pit stop.
“It was my mistake,” conceded Vettel. “My start was too good and I ended up with nowhere to go. I tried to brake early and had no room.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said: “It was a misjudgement from Sebastian because it ruined his race as well. The floor of Valtteri’s car was destroyed.”
Hamilton now leads Vettel, who had a wayward race, by 14 points in the championship after the first French event for a decade and the first at Le Castellet since 1990.
“I hadn’t thought about that, but that is where I want to be,” he said afterwards, when he was later critical of Vettel for his crash with Bottas.
On seeing a video recording of the incident, he said: “He took him right out –- ah, man, that’s crazy.”
He added that a five seconds penalty was too lenient, an opinion shared by many including Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda.
“Why Vettel gets only five seconds for this enormous mistake I don’t understand,” said the three-time world champion. “It’s too little. Five seconds is nothing. He destroyed the whole race for himself and for Bottas.”
Carlos Sainz came home eighth for Renault, to the delight of the crowd, ahead of team-mate Nico Hulkenberg and Charles Leclerc, who secured a point for Sauber with another impressive performance.
Hamilton extended his record run of points-scoring finishes to 33 successive races.
Verstappen, who has delivered two successful and composed races since an emotional outburst at reporters in Canada earlier in June, relished his podium finish.
“I tried to follow Lewis, but obviously he was controlling the pace. I enjoyed the race. I didn’t have to work very hard for it, but it’s always nice to be on the podium.”
Raikkonen said he was “a bit blocked with all the mayhem” at the start, but made a decent recovery.
“We had enough speed and things worked well,” he said.
His compatriot Bottas was typically matter-of-fact about his crash with Vettel.
“We were side by side and I went for the outside, left enough room for him, but he went wide and he hit me. I got a puncture and damage to the floor, which compromised the race.”