Lewis Hamilton capped off a stunning return to form with a win at the Spanish Grand Prix amidst an enthralling battle with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton’s victory – by just 3.490 seconds – was made possible by some superb rear-guard driving by the three-time world champion and last-second strategy changes.
It now puts Hamilton just 6 points behind Vettel with a quarter of the season completed.
But such is the gap between Mercedes, Ferrari and the rest of the pack that the only other car to finish on the lead lap was Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo – still some 75 seconds behind Hamilton – who took his first podium finish of the season.
Force India picked up a bagful of points to cement their fourth place in the constructors’ title with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon finishing in fourth and fifth. Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg ended in sixth followed by Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz and Sauber’s Pascal Wherlein.
“Epic Grand Prix” falls to Hamilton
Hamilton started on pole but a quick getaway from Vettel saw the German take the lead and build an early 2.2 second gap with a blistering first lap.
Behind Vettel and Hamilton, the opening lap traffic jam caused the early end for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – both genuine podium contenders. Remarkably, neither were at fault and it was a bumbling Valterri Bottas who clipped Raikkonen’s right-rear tyre around Turn 1 and then shunted into Verstappen breaking both of their drive shafts immediately.
It left Vettel and Hamilton out front to dual for victory. Crucially, the Mercedes stayed within a few seconds of the leading Ferrari – something that Hamilton couldn’t do prior to the new upgrades introduced for this race.
The small lead left the Ferrari pit wall concerned and they pulled Vettel in for an early first stop for fresh soft tyres to avoid an ‘under cut’. Vettel emerged from the pits behind Bottas who managed to keep him at bay for two laps and hold up the faster Ferrari.
“We lost a lot of time fighting Valtteri,” Vettel said afterwards. “We lost four seconds. I was catching him but I knew they wouldn’t pit him.”
On the other side of the fight, Mercedes switched strategies and kept Hamilton on track seven laps longer than originally planned for his first stop putting him on the medium compound meaning that he was running an alternate strategy to Vettel.
Virtual safety car changes race
The race took another pivot with a virtual safety car to remove Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren after a collision with Felipe Massa’s Williams.
Ferrari couldn’t make the final pit stop for Vettel during the virtual safety car because he would have come out behind Hamilton.
Meantime, Mercedes waited until the virtual safety car was about to end to put Hamilton onto the faster soft tyres. Ferrari pulled in Vettel a lap later – while everyone was at race pace – for the slower medium tyres. The German’s 8-second gap was now completely eroded and he returned to the track wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton.
Vettel tried valiantly to hold off Hamilton using the slip stream and DRS advantage from backmarkers but he was helpless to defend a fast charging Mercedes.
“We came out so close together which was super tight into Turn 1,” said Hamilton. “He didn’t give me much space, it was close!”
“I thought Seb would get me at the end of the final stint but I was able to do it. I have to congratulate my team today, with the strategy and the pit stops, as well as everyone back at the factory that has worked so hard to deliver these upgrades, enabling us to be so close in this fight with Ferrari.”
Backmarkers cash in on crashes
A series of collisions and mechanical failures presented a phenomenal opportunity for the chasing pack to secure some valuable points for the constructors’ table.
Sauber comes away from Spain with a solid cushion from McLaren on the bottom of the table with Wherlein’s strong one-stop race giving him eighth place. “It feels very good to finish this race surprisingly in the points,” Wherlein commented.
It was even an unexpected podium for Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo avoided the early bungles to run a race of his own in third but still a long way off the Mercedes and Ferrari pace.
“I didn’t have any real battles and my race was more about trying to keep a rhythm and maintain concentration,” said the Australian.
“I got a bit fortunate with Valtteri’s problem towards the end of the race which bumped me up to third, but of course I’m still happy to be up there again and see all the smiles from the team. Today we will enjoy the podium but tomorrow we need to understand how to further close the gap to Ferrari and Mercedes.”