French Grand Prix: Hamilton on song as it all goes King Kong for Vettel

Two into one won’t go: Sebastian Vettel spins Valtteri Bottas out of contention at the French Grand Prix

Champagne – loved by many, dismissed by many, but there’s no denying the most exciting part is that pop at the beginning and the mess that results if you’re over-exuberant.

READ MORE: Hamilton cruises back to standings summit with France win

Which is pretty much the story of the 2018 French Grand Prix. I heard some fans describe it as action-packed, others as lacking in genuine excitement, but all of them had an opinion on the first-lap shenanigans that dominated the race.

Whether you found it fizzy or flat, there were plenty of talking points…

That was a little lively, Seb

Which way’s the race? Sebastian Vettel crosses the run-off area after causing first-corner chaos at the Circuit Paul Ricard

Sebastian Vettel paid the price – or rather, paid a price – for punting Valtteri Bottas out of contention at the first corner.

But, much as Vettel has got off lightly in the past for on-track misdemeanours, it is possible to feel a teensy bit of sympathy for him after the French Grand Prix.

He absolutely aced the start … well, up to the point where brakes were required.

The opening lap is crucial at the Circuit Paul Ricard and, having qualified behind the two Mercedes, Vettel had to do something special.

He certainly managed that – he got the drop on Valtteri Bottas and was closing rapidly on Lewis Hamilton when it became apparent that his start was a little too good.

Boxed in by Bottas, and with his braking ability hampered by the turbulence from Hamilton’s car, the German whacked Bottas, sending the Finn spinning off and wrecking both of their races.

Bottas suffered more, picking up a puncture and floor damage that would slow him throughout the rest of the afternoon.

Corners

Vettel was able to carry on – only to collide with Romain Grosjean’s Haas a few corners later.

I daresay it saved Grosjean the bother of creating an accident for once. Though, to be fair to the Frenchman, he’d already driven blindly into his countryman Esteban Ocon in the first few hundred metres, wrecking his race but maintaining Grosjean’s splendid reputation for being a chaos magnet.

Anyway, Vettel got a five-second penalty, which made precious little difference to his race result, and proceeded to carve through the field to finish fifth.

Bottas, with that damaged floor, paid a higher price and finished seventh – in a car which should have been a top-two finisher this weekend.

After the race, Mercedes mouthpiece Nikki Lauda was scathing about Vettel’s punishment, saying: ‘Why he only gets five seconds for this enormous mistake I don’t know.’

Lewis Hamilton, in the cooldown room with second-placed Max Verstappen, watched the Vettel incident and said: ‘Man, that’s crazy!’ Crazy it may have been, but it certainly made Hamilton’s victory a lot more straightforward. Talking of which…

A vintage weekend for Lewis?

Spray it again: Lewis Hamilton drenches Mercedes AMG Sporting Director Ron Meadows on the Paul Ricard podium

Actually, it wasn’t Hamilton’s best weekend – which is ominous for Ferrari – but it was pretty decent..

He stuck his car on pole but claimed he could have been at least three-tenths faster.

He controlled the race but, thanks to Vettel and Bottas being neutered, was never under any pressure – and will have been driving what was a brand new Merc engine with the wick turned down, to keep it in tip-top shape.

By recent standards, it was a pretty effortless victory and it catapulted him back into the lead in the F1 Drivers’ Championship in what has already been a see-saw season.

The only slight concern for Hamilton is that, having delivered the new engines a race late after testing threw up some concerns, Mercedes saw one of their customer engines – which are physically near-as-damn identical to Hamilton’s engine – hit a problem, Sergio Perez retiring his Force India on lap 27 with a power unit problem.

Still, the advantage of having customers use your engines is that, when they have problems, they add to your own knowledge bank.

The sparkle returns for Max

Max effort: Actually, Verstappen said the race wasn’t particularly challenging after that first corner was out of the way

On a weekend when so much of the paddock gossip was about where Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo will be driving next season, team-mate Max Verstappen did exactly what he had to – grabbing another podium opportunity and reminding us all that there are two cracking drivers in that team.

After a scrappy start to the F1 season, he seems to be settling into a decent points-scoring rhythm.

Verstappen again outscored Ricciardo, who was running a higher downforce configuration and had a damaged front wing, both of which slowed his progress.

But he also finished almost 19 seconds ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari … thanks in part to taking to the runoff area as the first-lap chaos unfolded, and rejoining the circuit immediately behind Hamilton. A lucky break, for sure, but he made it count.

A toast to Leclerc

Making an impact: Charles Leclerc on his way to more points for Sauber, in the 2018 French Grand Prix

Charles Leclerc continues to impress, apparently edging closer to a Ferrari seat next season with every race.

He qualified his Sauber eighth – a Sauber, eighth – and once again finished in the points, tenth and the last driver not to be lapped.

And he was three places ahead of team-mate Marcus Ericsson, who must be feeling a bit of pressure these days.

Someone definitely not edging closer to a Ferrari seat – or, possibly, any F1 seat – was Fernando Alonso.

Nando and team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne – no slouch himself – qualified a woeful 16th and 18th, the worst Saturday for McLaren in a horrible year.

Vandoorne finished an inglorious 12th in the race and Alonso didn’t manage even that.

On lap 40, the Spaniard radioed his team with this uplifting message: ‘I have no brakes, no tyres, we are out of the points and trying to do whatever but I don’t care too much.’

In the closing laps, he pitted for new tyres to try for a fastest lap. That ended with a suspension failure and yet more misery at McLaren, whose week has been dominated by tales of a team falling apart at the seams.

Alonso’s Le Mans victory must have seemed like a distant dream.

About that F1 trophy … no, you haven’t been drinking

The King and I: Lewis Hamilton launches his ‘King Kong’ trophy into the air after his French Grand Prix victory

Dotted around Circuit Paul Ricard were some big ol’ statues by French artist Richard Orlinski – the man responsible for the ‘Red, white and blue King Kong with a tyre’ trophy.

F1 owners Liberty said they’d selected the trophy based on fan feedback and it was certainly an eye-catching choice.

It seemed to be based on Orlinski’s gorilla-themed piece Wild Kong Oil, in which the F1 tyre is replaced with a barrel of oil.

Problem is, in that statue, Kong is rejecting the barrel of oil, which represents the ‘plague of pollution’.

I wonder what plague the Pirelli tyre represents? The plague of dull races?

Still, it looks way cooler than your regular F1 trophies and, if it provokes some awkward questions, so much the better.

OK, no time to waste as we’re off to Austria in a few days for the second part of the grand prix triple-header that kicks off a busy summer for F1.

Hope they’ve commissioned a decent trophy.