LE CASTELLET: Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton steered clear of chaos on the opening lap to win the first French Grand Prix in a decade on Sunday and retake the overall lead from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
Vettel finished only fifth after colliding with Hamilton’s Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas at the start.
The victory was the 65th of Hamilton’s F1 career but the Briton’s first in France, which last hosted a race in 2008, and continued a joyous day for English sports fans after the national side’s 6-1 rout of Panama at the World Cup in Russia.
“Great work guys! I’m so happy for England as well,” he said over the team radio.
“It’s a beautiful Sunday, everyone.”
Hamilton, who had started on pole position, now leads Vettel by 14 points after eight of 21 races. The Briton has 145 and the German 131.
Red Bull’s Dutch 20-year-old Max Verstappen took the chequered flag in second place with Kimi Raikkonen passing Vettel and completing the podium for Ferrari.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo was fourth for Red Bull.
Hamilton had never before won in France and his victory at Le Castellet, a southern circuit that last hosted Formula One in 1990, set a record for the most wins at different grand Prix.
He had shared the record of 22 with retired seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher. He also extended his record of wins at different circuits to 26.
There was drama at the start as Hamilton and Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas lined up on the front row with Vettel just behind in third.
Vettel and Bottas collided as they jostled for position, with the German handed a five-second penalty for causing the collision.
“We were going side by side to the braking zone. I went for the outside and I think I braked quite a bit later and left enough room for him to be inside still,” said Bottas.
“He just went wide and hit me. I got a puncture and decent damage to the floor, which really compromised the race.”
Niki Lauda, the Mercedes non-executive chairman, believed Vettel’s penalty was too lenient. “Five seconds is nothing. He really destroyed the whole race for himself and for Bottas,” he said.
Vettel said that, with hindsight, he would have been better off with a slower start.
“It was my mistake. I tried to brake early and get out of it but I had no room,” said the German.
The incident dropped both to the back of the field after pitstops while the safety car was deployed for four laps with debris scattered across the track from other accidents.
Two of the three French drivers retired on the spot, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly the unlucky casualties.
Vettel returned to the pits for a new front wing while Bottas limped back on three wheels and a rim with the remains of the tyre flailing.
Their fight back into the points, and in Vettel’s case with some hope of ending up on the podium, provided much of the entertainment for the rest of the afternoon with the German up to eighth after 15 laps.
Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen finished sixth for the Haas team, with Bottas seventh and Carlos Sainz eighth for Renault after losing two places three laps from the end when his car lost power.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg took ninth place with Monaco rookie Charles Leclerc a fine 10th for Sauber and denying Haas’s French driver Romain Grosjean his first point of the season.