MONTREAL -- Max Verstappen maintained his hold on the Formula One championship fight by holding off a late challenge from Carlos Sainz Jr. to earn his sixth win of the season in a fairly easy Sunday drive in the Canadian Grand Prix.
Verstappen won from the pole at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve to extend his lead in the standings to 46 points over Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez, who retired early with a gearbox issue.
“It's still a very long way to go and I know the gap of course is quite big, but I also know that can switch around very quickly,” Verstappen said of his points lead. He noted he trailed Charles Leclerc by 46 points following the third race of the season.
The Dutchman had no trouble clearing Fernando Alonso, who earned his first front-row start in a decade then joked he'd attack Verstappen in the first turn to steal the victory.
But there was no challenge and by the time Sainz cleared Alonso for second on Lap 2, Verstappen had already built a lead of 2.4 seconds. Sainz was able to close the gap over the final 10 laps and pressured the reigning F1 champion but faded on the last lap and finished .993 seconds behind in his Ferrari.
“It was good racing, it is always more enjoyable to be able to really push rather than just save your tires,” said Verstappen, who added Sainz didn't have “a go in terms overtaking, but it was super close.”
Sainz said second was the best he could get on Sunday.
“When I gave it all, I was risking everything,” Sainz said. “I can tell you I was pushing. I left everything out there. For the first time this season I can say I was fastest man on track, which gives me confidence and some hope for the next races.”
Mercedes had a tremendous rebound from its season-long struggles, which included a terrible Friday practice, as seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton scored his first podium since the season-opening race in March. George Russell was fourth as Hamilton beat his new teammate for just the second time in nine races this season.
“It feels great to be amongst the battle and at the end there I was keeping up with these guys. It does give me and the team a lot of hope," Hamilton said. “The potential is truly there if we can get the setup right and I think that's been the most difficult thing this year.”
Hamilton received a rousing ovation after his finish and said he had no problems with his back, which has been plaguing him all season because of how the new Mercedes bounces all over the track.
“It's good, I'm back to being young,” said the 37-year-old. But he added “we still had bouncing, but it's night and day the difference.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the team had raised the ride height on its cars to make them more drivable and eliminate the “porpoising” effect that has bogged down Hamilton and Russell all season. The bouncing has caused back pain and headaches for its drivers.
“The (wind) tunnel has told us that the lower the car, the faster you go, the more ground effect it will have," Wolff said. "But in effect, you can't drive the car there so you need to lift it, and lift it, and lift it, and then on paper you are losing half a second or so in downforce.
“We raised it already (Saturday) but the more you raise, the more performance you lose. So it's always a compromise.”
Verstappen, meanwhile, has now won six of the first nine races in his title defense season.
It was Verstappen's first win in Montreal, which F1 said hosted a record 338,000 spectators over the three-day weekend as the series returned to Canada after a two-year pause during the pandemic. The Sunday crowd was treated to clear, sunny skies after two days of rain that upended qualifying and created the slick track that allowed Alonso — and other drivers, including Hamilton — to earn their top starting spots this year.
Leclerc rallied from a 10-place grid penalty for changing the engine in his Ferrari to finish fifth from 19th. Estaban Ocon of Alpine finished sixth and teammate Alonso, who said he'd be pleased with a fifth-place finish, was seventh but penalized five-seconds after the race for weaving.
That dropped Alonso to ninth, while Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo moved to seventh. Bottas was followed by rookie teammate Zhou Guanyu, who was moved to eighth after the Alonso penalty and finished in the points for the second time this season. Canadian driver Lance Stroll of Aston Martin was 10th.
Perez exited the race after just nine laps with a gearbox issue, the fourth Red Bull mechanical failure this season between Perez and Verstappen. Eleven laps later, Mick Schumacher came to a stop on track — ending the Haas driver's bid to score his first F1 points.
Haas had equaled its best qualifying effort in team history a day earlier when Kevin Magnussen and Schumacher qualified fifth and sixth, but the team failed to convert. Magnussen damaged his front wing on the opening lap and finished 17th.
“I feel like we built the cake, but we just didn’t get to put the frosting on it,” Schumacher said.
Toronto native Nicholas Latifi, who has admitted his seat at Williams is not secure, was 16th in his first career home grand prix.
“It’s great to finally have my first home race and the support I felt from my family, friends and all the fans in the grandstands was amazing,” said Latifi. “In terms of on track, we were lacking a lot of pace and we need to try to understand why. Regardless of the result, this weekend has been one to remember.”
UP NEXT: The British Grand Prix at Silverstone on July 3. Hamilton won a year ago in what's considered the Brit's home race.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports