Lewis Hamilton claimed his fifth successive Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen after a Mercedes pit-stop masterstroke.
Hamilton moved on to 98 career wins after a surprise second change of tyres hoodwinked Red Bull to lift him 14 points clear of Verstappen in the drivers’ standings.
Daniel Ricciardo claimed his joint-best race finish since joining McLaren, coming home in sixth behind Valtteri Bottas in third, Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari in fourth and Esteban Ocon’s Alpine in fifth.
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“Happy all weekend,” said Ricciardo, who outdrove teammate Lando Norris for the first time this season. “It was personally a better weekend for sure. It is definitely a step in the right direction, it is progress.
“I’m still learning, it sounds crazy to say that but still learning how to be better with this car. The race was good. We do the race five more times a day and I think six is the best we can finish.
“Every car ahead was faster, and even Carlos (Sainz) behind was faster. So getting him at the start was critical and that allowed me to finish sixth. The team executed a good two stops. We changed the plan later in the race and it was the right call.”
Hamilton had set off from pole for the 100th time but was beaten to the first corner by Verstappen, with Leclerc dishing out the same treatment on Bottas on turn two.
On lap eight Yuki Tsunoda’s Sunday drive in Catalonia came to a premature end when his Alpha Tauri came to a grinding halt.
“Engine stop” the Japanese rookie lamented as the safety car emerged briefly to remove the immobile obstacle.
Verstappen held off Hamilton comfortably on the restart on lap 11, with Leclerc continuing to split the two Mercedes.
With a third of the race completed the first round of pit stops began, with all eyes on which of the front two with less than a second between them would blink first.
Verstappen came in on lap 25, but the pit stop was slow by a couple of seconds in another minor but potentially critical error by the Red Bull title contenders.
The Mercedes pit wall pulled Hamilton in for a lightning stop a few laps later as they pinned their hopes on fresher medium tyres making the difference towards the finish.
At the midway point Hamilton set the fastest lap to go less than two and a half seconds behind his Dutch rival. The gap was less than a second shortly after.
On lap 43 Mercedes played their ace card.
Hamilton, half a second off the lead, came into the pits for a second new set of mediums.
He re-emerged with under 23sec to make up on Verstappen, who with tyre wear was in danger of becoming a sitting duck for the man in pursuit of a record eighth drivers’ title.
Hamilton asked his pit wall: “How far have I got to catch up?”
“Currently 22 seconds… we’ve done it before…” came back the reply.
There was a note of desperation on Red Bull’s radio with Verstappen suggesting “I don’t know how we are going to make it to the end”.
Hamilton moved into second but there was no hint of team orders with Bottas forcing his teammate into full overtaking mode.
Ten laps to go and Hamilton had only three seconds to make up on Verstappen and on lap 60 he did it, surging past the Dutchman on turn one – Toto Wolff, his team boss, punching the air with delight as their masterstroke paid off.
‘I LEARNT A LOT ABOUT MAX TODAY’
Speaking after the race, Hamilton raised eyebrows for a cryptic comment about his title rival which he refused to elaborate on.
“I learnt a lot about Max today, perhaps more than all the other races put together,” he said. “This has been a good race in that sense.”
Asked if he wished to elaborate, Hamilton said: “No, not particularly. When you are with people on track you get to see different things up close. I learnt a lot about his car and how he uses it.”
Hamilton said he was in two minds as to whether to obey the team order to come in for another stop.
“I was about to get a shot to get past him as I pitted. I was really conflicted – ‘do I come in or ignore the call?’.
“I did what the team asked because there is a great trust between us. Remarkable job by everyone in this team. What a day.”
Red Bull boss Christian Horner was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “In fairness, hats off to Mercedes and Lewis.”
Verstappen said: “We’re not where we want to be and we still need to push hard and catch up because at the moment we are a little bit slower. But compared to last year, it has been a jump for us.”
Bottas took third in the second Mercedes with Leclerc’s Ferrari in fourth and Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull completing the top five.
Formula One takes a breather next weekend before returning for the Monaco Grand Prix with Hamilton possibly having a tilt at his century of wins in Azerbaijan at the start of June.
RESULTS OF THE SPANISH GRAND PRIX
1. Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes) 1hr 33min 07.680sec
2. Max Verstappen (NED/Red Bull-Honda) at 15.841sec
3. Valtteri Bottas (FIN/Mercedes) 26.610
4. Charles Leclerc (MON/Ferrari) 54.616
5. Sergio Perez (MEX/Red Bull-Honda) 1:03.671
6. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS/McLaren-Mercedes) 1:13.768
7. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP/Ferrari) 1:14.670
8. Lando Norris (GBR/McLaren-Mercedes) 1 lap
9. Esteban Ocon (FRA/Alpine-Renault) 1 lap
10. Pierre Gasly (FRA/AlphaTauri-Honda) 1 lap
11. Lance Stroll (CAN/Aston Martin-Mercedes) 1 lap
12. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN/Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) 1 lap
13. Sebastian Vettel (GER/Aston Martin-Mercedes) 1 lap
14. George Russell (GBR/Williams-Mercedes) 1 lap
15. Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA/Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) 1 lap
16. Nicholas Latifi (CAN/Williams-Mercedes) 1 lap
17. Fernando Alonso (ESP/Alpine-Renault) 1 lap
18. Mick Schumacher (GER/Haas-Ferrari) 2 laps
19. Nikita Mazepin (RUS/Haas-Ferrari) 2 laps
Fastest lap: Max Verstappen
Retired: Yuki Tsunoda (JPN/AlphaTauri-Honda)
1. Lewis Hamilton (GBR) 94 pts
2. Max Verstappen (NED) 80
3. Valtteri Bottas (FIN) 47
4. Lando Norris (GBR) 41
5. Charles Leclerc (MON) 40
6. Sergio Perez (MEX) 32
7. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) 24
8. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) 20
9. Esteban Ocon (FRA) 10
10. Pierre Gasly (FRA) 8
11. Lance Stroll (CAN) 5
12. Fernando Alonso (ESP) 5
13. Yuki Tsunoda (JPN) 2
14. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) 0
15. Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA) 0
16. Sebastian Vettel (GER) 0
17. George Russell (GBR) 0
18. Mick Schumacher (GER) 0
19. Nicholas Latifi (CAN) 0
20. Nikita Mazepin (RUS) 0