LE CASTELLET, France — Lewis Hamilton capitalized on a mistake by rival Sebastian Vettel to enjoy a wire-to-wire victory at the French Grand Prix on Sunday and retake the lead in the Formula One title race.
Starting third behind Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, Vettel tried to use his faster set of tires to make a good start.
But the German’s lunge on the inside of the first corner crunched his Ferrari into the back of Bottas, damaging both cars and sending them into the pits for repairs.
Vettel emerged with a new front wing and the entire field to fight through, and even though he made quick work of the slower cars he had to settle for a fifth-place finish.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen in his Ferrari crossed second and third to complete the podium at the Paul Ricard Circuit. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was fourth.
Defending champion Hamilton has 145 points after eight races. Vettel, who entered the race with a one-point lead, leaves trailing by 14.
While Hamilton thanked his team for its “great work” via the radio after crossing the finish line, Vettel lamented that he “had lost the race on the first lap.”
“The start was the closest and then, after that, fortunately I was very comfortable with the balance,” Hamilton said after soaking up his third win of the season. “Max had good pace, but I was able to eke out a little more with each lap.”
It was Hamilton’s 65th career win. Only Michael Schumacher has more victories with 91.
Hamilton dominated the race, qualifying and Friday’s practice sessions boosted by an engine upgrade that Mercedes had expected to roll out in Canada, when Hamilton finished fifth and lost his lead to race winner Vettel.
“A fresh engine is always a good thing,” Hamilton said. “After seven races there is no way it can have the same power as a brand new engine. The guys did a great job. They work to create the best engine in the world.”
Seconds after the run-in between Vettel and Bottas, there was further trouble when Pierre Gasly ran his Toro Rosso into the back of Esteban Ocon’s Force India, knocking them both out of the race and bringing out the safety car.
Bottas, who needed a new rear tire, had to restart at the back with Vettel.
Hamilton thought that Vettel got away lightly with a five-second penalty for causing his collision.
“It’s a shame, we had a chance for a one-two (finish),” Hamilton said. “I mean we are all going into Turn 1 as hard as you could, but when someone destroys your race through an error, it is kind of a tap on the hand.”
But Hamilton then added: “Those things happen.”
“I thought I was going to get rear-ended,” he said. “(But) we are all fighting for world championships. We are not twiddling around.”
Kevin Magnussen (Haas), Bottas, Carlos Sainz (Renault), Nico Hulkenberg (Renault) and Charles Leclerc (Sauber) finished out the points.
Force India’s bad day only got worse when it also lost Sergio Perez midway through the race due to an engine issue.
Fernando Alonso, who won the 24 Hours Le Mans classic endurance race last week, suffered more misery back with McLaren. The former two-time champion failed to finish his third consecutive F1 race when his McLaren had a problem with its back left tire and he was forced to retire late.
Lance Stroll also failed to finish when a tire blew on his Williams.
Basking in the Mediterranean sun, driving conditions were optimal at the 5.8-kilometre (3.6-mile) circuit situated next to a private airport where planes took off and landed all weekend.
The handful of secondary roads that led to the track — which is situated just inland from the Cote d’ Azur — produced hours-long traffic jams for the tens of thousands eager to attend their first F1 race in France since 2008.
The return of the French GP is the first part of an unprecedented tripleheader of three races on consecutive weekends.
With less time for Ferrari’s engineers to play catch up, Hamilton will hope to press his advantage at the Austrian and British races.