Lewis Hamilton has closed his championship deficit to just six points after seizing a strategic win in a superb Spanish Grand Prix.
The Mercedes driver had scored Briton’s 250th pole position in qualifying, but he immediately lost the lead to Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari at the start.
From that point Hamilton and the pit wall worked in together to get his car back into a race-winning position, using strategy, raw pace and a touch of luck to overhaul the leader.
Mercedes pressured Ferrari to stop earlier than it wanted to, which required Vettel to lap faster than he would otherwise have had to — but Mercedes left Valtteri Bottas out on worn tyres to slow down the German, preventing him from escaping too far up the road from Hamilton.
Better still for the Hamilton was that Vettel was using up the grippier soft tyre trying to navigate around the other Mercedes car. The opposite would be true at the end of the race, when Hamilton would have the faster compound to attack Vettel on the slower rubber.
Here luck came into play: a clumsy crash by rookie Stoffel Vandoorne triggered a virtual safety car, enabling Hamilton to make his final pit stop while losing minimal time.
The caution period had ended by the time Ferrari had stopped Vettel, meaning the German’s hard-earnt gap over Hamilton was wiped out.
But the job still had to be done on the track, and after some robust defending on Vettel’s part, Hamilton managed to sneak past in the Ferrari’s slipstream on lap 44.
“I think it was the rawest fight I can remember having for some real time,” Hamilton said. “This is what the sport needs to be every single race.”
“This is why I race and this is what got me into racing in the beginning. To have that close battle with [Sebastian], with a four-time champ, is awesome.”
Vettel was gracious in defeat, knowing his title lead remained intact after such a difficult grand prix.
“He won it fair and square, so I can’t take it away from him,” he said. “Obviously I’m not happy because … [the win] was there.
“I think the car was good, nothing to blame there. So I think it’s still a very, very good result.”
But while Hamilton and Vettel stole headlines, teammates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen suffered anonymous weekends.
Bottas struck Räikkönen at the first turn, sending the Ferrari careering into Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, ending both their races on the spot.
Valtteri was able to drive on, but a mid-race engine failure put paid to an assured third place.
But from their issues came Daniel Ricciardo’s first podium of the season for Red Bull Racing.
Ricciardo’s team has thus far been too slow to compete for victory but too fast to be threatened by the midfield teams, so with his teammate crashed out, the Australian was in a disappointing race of one in Spain.
“As Lewis touched on, that’s a big part of why we race: we want to have these battles and fights,” Ricciardo said. “I’m envious, not to be part of that, but we’re going to try to work on it.”
A raft of upgrades in Barcelona promised to bring Red Bull Racing closer to front, and though the car’s pace improved in qualifying, it nonetheless finished 75 seconds off the lead in the 66-lap race.
Further tweaking will therefore be required ahead of next weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix on 28 May, a race in which the team has only once failed to finish on the podium since 2010.