SILVERSTONE, England (AP) — Carlos Sainz Jr. won his first career Formula One race on Sunday with a victory at the British Grand Prix — the most dramatic race so far this season. It began with a frightening first-lap crash and ended with intense wheel-to-wheel battles for the podium positions.

Sainz was in the lead with Charles Leclerc close behind and, while Ferrari at first said they were “free to fight,” the Italian team then asked Sainz to let Leclerc past to avoid losing time to Lewis Hamilton.

But a safety car came out and Ferrari brought Sainz into the pits for fresher, grippier soft tires. Leclerc was left on older, hard tires and Sainz soon passed his teammate to regain the lead and pull away for his first victory in his 150th F1 start.

“Today the win does feel a bit of a relief,” said Sainz. “Honestly, I never stopped believing that this dream was going to come, even though this year has been tough for me.” He had finished second or third 11 times before winning and was a frustratingly close second to Verstappen at the last race in Canada.

Sergio Pérez passed Hamilton and Leclerc after the restart and finished second behind Sainz. Hamilton was briefly second after passing both Pérez and Leclerc in a three-wide move, but he couldn’t hold position and dropped back to fourth.

Hamilton then surged past Leclerc in a fierce fight for third place. He also led laps Sunday for the first time this season.

“I gave it everything,” said Hamilton, who was third in Canada two weeks ago and hoped Mercedes is on a comeback. The team has been unable to challenge Red Bull and Ferrari for wins this season, but an added upgrade to the Mercedes ahead of this weekend was promising.

“We’ve got some improvements to make but this is a huge bonus for us to be on the podium,” Hamilton added.

Leclerc was later seen being spoken to privately by Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto. Leclerc said he was “very, very disappointed” with the result and had discussed with Binotto why the team had left him out on old tires.

“We could have (changed the tires) but I was asked to stay out on track. So that’s what I did,” he told French broadcaster Canal Plus.

Max Verstappen, the defending F1 champion and current standings leader, dropped out of the lead with damage to his Red Bull after running over debris. He struggled for grip and finished seventh.

Pérez said his race was a “great comeback” after he dropped to the back early in the race following damage to his front wing while racing Leclerc and Verstappen.

The race was red-flagged almost as soon as it began when a crash at the first corner left Zhou Guanyu and Alex Albon needing medical treatment.

Zhou’s car flipped upside-down and cleared a tire barrier before smashing into a fence. Pierre Gasly had knocked George Russell’s Mercedes into Zhou’s back wheel, flipping the Chinese driver’s Alfa Romeo. As drivers tried to avoid that crash, Albon was knocked sideways into the pit wall.

Zhou was treated at the circuit’s medical center, and Alfa Romeo said he was not badly injured, while Williams said Albon had been taken to hospital by helicopter for “precautionary checks.”

Russell, who left his car to rush to Zhou’s aid, was also unable to restart the race.

The “halo” device protecting Zhou’s head was scraped back to bare metal after being dragged through the gravel and a chunk of the air intake behind the driver was torn away.

A group of protesters against the oil industry ran onto the track following the crash and sat down. Northamptonshire police said seven arrests were made over the protest.

Speaking after the race, Hamilton signaled his support for the protesters. “Big up those guys,” he said. Mercedes said Hamilton wasn’t fully aware of the circumstances at that time and was “endorsing their right to protest but not the method that they chose, which compromised their safety and that of others.”

Verstappen had overtaken Sainz at the original start but had to do it all again when the race was restarted after the multi-car crash involving Zhou. Sainz stayed in front at the second start, but Verstappen took the lead on lap 10 when Sainz lost control and ran off the track.

Verstappen soon dropped behind both Ferraris after reporting a possible puncture from debris.

Verstappen said his car was “100% broken” with little grip and compared it to “driving on ice,” but his Red Bull team said it was safe to continue.

The crowd cheered Verstappen’s misfortune as he was passed by the Ferraris. The Dutch driver is unpopular with some British fans after a bitter rivalry with Hamilton for the title last year, when the two crashed at Silverstone.

Former champion Nelson Piquet used a racial slur and homophobic language to describe Hamilton, F1’s only Black driver, in interviews from last year which came to wider attention this week. Verstappen is dating Piquet’s daughter, Kelly, and faced criticism from fans when he said Piquet was not a racist despite using “very offensive” language.

Verstappen retains the championship lead but his advantage over second-place Pérez was cut from 46 points to 34 as Sainz ended a run of six consecutive Red Bull wins. Leclerc is nine points behind Pérez in third.

Two-time champion Fernando Alonso — with 32 race victories, the only other Spanish driver besides Sainz to win in F1 — was fifth for Alpine on Sunday in his best result of the season. Alonso was ahead of Lando Norris for McLaren and then Verstappen. Mick Schumacher, son of seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, picked up his first career points in eighth for Haas, with Sebastian Vettel ninth for Aston Martin.

American team Haas had its first double points finish since 2019 as Kevin Magnussen placed 10th.

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