The result was so remarkable, so perfect – fitting into the narrative of the Red Bull driver lead-up to the race and creating so many historical firsts – that it almost doesn’t matter how it came to be that Max Verstappen won the Spanish Grand Prix.
His speed, the way he kept a set of mediums together for 32 laps, his coolness under long pressure from Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari despite the enormity of the position he was in; all these remarkable facets of Max’s day played their part. But there were a couple of other things even more critical – the Mercedes drivers finally having the first lap crash they’ve always been destined to have some day. And the way Red Bull and Ferrari were faced with a strategic dilemma in their fight with each other that forced them to make a 50:50 choice. Three stop or two? One of those choices was always going to be wrong.
The two drivers – Verstappen and Räikkönen – in the passive roles, running behind when that choice had to be made, turned out to be the ones in the Pound seats. Sebastian Vettel’s speed once he’d got himself past Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso convinced Red Bull that the Scuderia would attempt to pass them by using the only way it might be possible – a three-stop strategy, which was indeed what Vettel was pushing his team to do. Which in turn forced Red Bull to respond by putting one of its cars on a matching strategy.
So Verstappen and Räikkönen inherited the first two places with many laps still to go and no more stops to make. Not far behind them, and growing ever closer, Sebastian Vettel fended off Daniel Ricciardo – a battle that would have been for the victory if Verstappen and Räikkönen’s tyres gave up at about the time they were expected to. But it didn’t happen that way. It happened the fairytale way instead – with the 18-year-old Grand Prix victor, Holland’s first Grand Prix winner, the team debutant winning, the youngest driver in the field staving off the oldest.
With the celebrations uncorked, the many accounts being given to TV crews, the sweat from the brows being wiped away, the two Mercedes drivers – in company with their bosses Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe – had long been raking through the aftermath of their brief and disastrous adventure.
For much of the distance what we had was two separate Red Bull vs Ferrari battles, with the two-stop battle running ahead of the three-stop, each struggle far from settled and with the three-stop fight gaining ground on Verstappen/Räikkönen who might at any time have lost tyre grip and fallen disastrously off the pace. It was a classic contest – and gave a good answer for those pondering how good the racing might be if Mercedes wasn’t in it.
The psychology was fascinating in the final high-pressure moments late in Q3. On the one hand, Lewis Hamilton – in the battle for the championship, 43 points behind his team-mate already – had locked up badly into turn 10 on the first of his two runs, blowing what was shaping up into an easy pole lap. Yet making his in-lap from that, Nico Rosberg on provisional pole, Hamilton was laughing – at just what a lap that had been shaping up to be but feeling confident that he had the measure of his team-mate here, that he was still going to do it on that final run. He had very little doubt about that. He was backing himself to do it.
In a similar vein, Daniel Ricciardo was all smiles with his crew as he prepared to get into his Red Bull for his single Q3 run, apparently totally relaxed, in a situation where one would imagine he’d be anything but. Max Verstappen had just showed up as his team-mate and in his second day in the car gone faster than Daniel in Friday morning practice, Q1 and Q2. Ricciardo even had to do a second Q2 run to be safe – and Max did not and so had the tyres to do two Q3 runs to the one of Ricciardo. Could the teenager really come in and burst that bubble so convincingly, so instantly? Was Ricciardo’s career trajectory – with not a blip in it to date – about to be deflected? It really didn’t look as if Daniel was too concerned.
Both Hamilton and Ricciardo delivered emphatically on their final runs: Hamilton took pole by 0.28s from Rosberg while Ricciardo shaved over 0.3s from Verstappen’s best to line up on the inside of an all-Red Bull second row. Hamilton’s final lap eclipsed his previous best in the first two sectors, then he braked just a little earlier for turn 10 to keep it clean in the final one – good enough for pole number 52. It had looked the likely outcome ever since he took to the track on Saturday morning with his W07 working much better than on Friday when he’d been luridly correcting time-consuming oversteer snaps through the long corners. “I had a problem [on Friday] with something on the car and it ended up a bit of a waste of a day. Today, starting from scratch, we made a few changes, more in the direction Nico had been already going and straight away I could feel the car beneath me, which was a great relief.”
Rosberg was accepting that Hamilton was just quicker on the day. He and Tony Ross had set off on a better set up foundation than the other side of the garage, one which Hamilton had essentially taken to then out-pace him. It’s not the first time it’s happened but it must be no less galling for that.
Verstappen was doing well to hide any crestfallen feelings he may have had at being pipped by his team-mate. He was visibly not quite in tune with his new car on Friday, turning it in sharply and being surprised that it simply gripped and went where he pointed it, rather than sliding up to where he expected it to go. But he quickly and impressively adapted, quick every time he ran in qualifying, each lap faster than his previous best. It was all put into perspective by Ricciardo’s last-lap flyer, however – a lap that had Daniel shrieking with delight when informed of his position. “Yeah, I left it late,” he smiled, “and gave myself only one run in which to do it, but I’ve been there before. It just adds a bit of excitement.”
Verstappen said all the right things after the first instalment of what promises to be a fascinating in-team battle: “For me the target today was to enjoy myself and I had a good feeling in the car. I focused on what I had to do and it worked. I’m happy, I didn’t expect to adapt to the car so quickly. I didn’t expect to be on the second row, so it’s a positive feeling. We are close to a podium.”
Hamilton’s pole lap was almost 0.7s quicker than Ricciardo’s as the best non-Mercedes. But that was still a major result for Red Bull, partly helped by the Ferrari’s difficulty in generating the appropriate tyre temperature on a track that was rather too hot for optimum grip. There is a whole science to understanding how the Pirellis work across a complex bandwidth of operating parameters and Mercedes and Red Bull, in particular, have strong departments that have devoted themselves to fully understanding all the nuances. Ferrari has lagged behind in this, something it has been quite late in recognising but which it is now correcting. A key tyre sciences man has been recruited from a less generously funded British team and he is to be tasked with building up the equivalent department in Maranello. But in the variable temperatures of Saturday, Ferrari was caught out and left with both cars – featuring extensive aero upgrades, in particular the brake ducts – back on row three.
Kimi Räikkönen was the faster-qualifying Ferrari driver, a chunky 0.3s adrift of Ricciardo. The Ferraris’ biggest losses were coming in the traction-demanding final sector, at which point the tyre grip had gone and the rear tyres’ surfaces were overheating. The increase in track temperature from early-30 degrees in the morning to mid-40s in the afternoon seemed to be have been particularly critical for the red cars. “Before qualifying we made some changes to my set-up,” said Kimi, “and the car felt better, but it was not easy to get the laps that we wanted and make the handling exactly as we desired. The car felt OK yesterday, today I was quicker, but the wind has been turning around a bit, making some places quite tricky.”
Vettel, a couple of tenths slower than Räikkönen, echoed his feelings: “I didn’t get hold of the car, I didn’t get the feeling that I had earlier today, and couldn’t nail the laps. I don’t think that it is a surprise, if you don’t get it together here it can be quite costly, and we know this. I think the gap to Mercedes is bigger than it has been all weekend. So clearly we didn’t get it right.”
Around 0.4s off the Ferraris, Valtteri Bottas was seventh quickest in the Williams-Mercedes, which generally had proved a bit of a handful around here, its lack of rear grip through the faster corners taking a lot out of the rear tyres, thereby costing it traction through the final sector. Bottas and the team worked away at minimising this through the practices and he felt that this was pretty much the limit of what he could have achieved. Felipe Massa failed to get the other Williams out of Q1. The team had left it late for both cars to make their Q1 runs – something that backfired when Massa encountered traffic and backed off, not realising there was insufficient time remaining to get in a second run. He would line up 18th. Had he just persevered with the lap, he had an 0.8s margin to the cut-off to work with.
This was an interesting time for Carlos Sainz, almost forgotten amid the Verstappen/Kvyat swap noise. He remained impressively focussed and methodically worked through maximising the Toro Rosso – which, as ever, was strong in the fast corners, less so in the braking and traction demands of the final sector. Working around these traits, he comfortably breezed into Q3 and on his single run there went eighth fastest, just 0.1s behind Bottas. His new team-mate Daniil Kvyat was 0.4s slower in Q2 and would line up 13th. Clearly feeling the need to fight his own corner after recent events, he was critical of being sent out for a second run in Q1, something he felt was unnecessary and which left him with just one new set of softs for Q2, rather than the two of Sainz.
Sergio Pérez was Force India’s only Q3 representative. The VJ09 featured new front wing, sidepods, engine cover, rear wing, diffuser and McLaren-like slatted cut-outs ahead of the rear tyre. The team was generally quite satisfied with its progress in understanding the car’s new traits – and Pérez did a particularly good lap in getting it through to Q3. Nico Hulkenberg in the sister car was a couple of tenths slower to line up 11th.
Marking the renewed McLaren-Honda partnership’s first ever appearance in Q3, Fernando Alonso qualified 10th. “It’s the first time in a long time I’ve not watched Q3 on television!” Alonso beamed. The car was still well down on end-of-straight speeds but Fernando was fifth quickest through the slow turns of sector three. It was Jenson Button’s turn to have the new nose (there is currently only one). “They tell me it’s better,” he said laconically, “so I assume that it is.” It was perhaps a little bit too much better for his tastes, though. “My car has been suffering from a loose-feeling rear end, which isn’t how I like it to feel because it means I can’t fully commit into corners. I tried my best, but driving around that handling characteristic has never been my strong point. Still, I adapted reasonably well to it this weekend, and, to end up just one and a half tenths off Fernando’s time is the best it’s been all weekend.” He would line up 12th.
The Haas was proving difficult, ill-balanced and gripless in slow corners, leaving Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutiérrez back in 14th and 16th respectively. Esteban’s Q1 time was actually the best recorded by Haas, but he couldn’t repeat it in Q2 on a set of tyres he felt were just not as good as those of Q1.
The Haas pair were split by Kevin Magnussen’s Renault. He was satisfied that he’d got everything out of the car it had to give. This is essentially last year’s Lotus E23 with a Renault engine and its development programme is only now getting properly underway. Jolyon Palmer – who suffered a left-rear tyre failure at 190mph down the straight on Friday – was 0.25s off Magnussen in Q1 and failed to make it out of there, in 17th.
Marcus Ericsson was the faster of the Sauber drivers, besting Felipe Nasr by 0.25s. The un-developed cars of the financially stressed team would be starting from 19th and 20th, around 0.5s faster than the Manors, with Pascal Wehrlein around a tenth and a half faster than team-mate Rio Haryanto at the back.
This race in the Catalan sunshine was one to be savoured. But in between the contest, the wheel-to-wheel thrill and strategic intrigue, there were two key questions to be answered.
1) What was going on with the Mercedes drivers?
Rosberg was in the incorrect engine mode. After the formation lap, he was supposed to change it but didn’t. Before the days of the radio restrictions, they would have seen this on the data and reminded him accordingly. It didn’t affect his start because within the race map, the launch mode overrides everything – so Rosberg’s performance off the grid was quite normal. Better, in fact, than Hamilton’s. Between the grid and turn one Lewis cut across to block, Nico slipstreamed tight behind him on the long run down there, darted out to the left and with the enhanced momentum from the earlier slipstream cut clean across the outside to take the lead.
It was only as they each then hit the buttons to disengage launch, as they raced through turns two and three, that Rosberg’s engine dropped into the formation lap mode (a lower power map) that he’d mistakenly left selected and Hamilton’s dropped into race mode that he’d – correctly – selected on the grid. Suddenly Rosberg had way less power than Hamilton. Instinctively, Nico hit the overtake button (on the far left of his steering wheel) to compensate and at the same time made sharply to the right, to block the inside line for turn four. The overtake button could only partly compensate and Hamilton’s momentum was far greater.
Upon exiting turn three Hamilton had noticed Rosberg’s ers-clipping light flashing then saw the reduced acceleration – and instinctively pounced. He momentarily hovered, trying to intuit which side to go for. Just as he moved right, Rosberg was doing the same. Hamilton kept coming. These are moments where a driver is living on instinct and Hamilton’s was that he could get his car inside of Rosberg before Nico could close him off.
“I went for it. I got there and I had part of my wing and part of my wheel alongside within the white line and then that diminished pretty quickly. I did what I could to avoid an incident pretty fast by going on the grass… But it all happened pretty quickly. [The closing speed] didn’t take me by surprise. I could see his de-rate light, but then it switched off so I wasn’t making any assumptions about what was going on. But I had a better run through [turn three]. He didn’t have the power from then… he did make a switch change afterwards but when you make that change it doesn’t kick in for 100 metres or whatever at that speed. So even though he changed it, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”
He got his front wing marginally ahead of the back of Rosberg’s car but Nico – not believing Hamilton would stay with the move – kept coming across. Now Hamilton was on the grass, spinning out of control and into Rosberg as the latter braked for turn four. Two heavily damaged Mercedes speared off into the gravel bed.
“Coming out of turn three I noticed I was down on engine power,” explained Rosberg, “which in hindsight was because I was in the incorrect mode. I saw Lewis closing in. As soon as I could, I closed the door. I went to the inside with a clear, strong move to make sure that he understands that there is not going to be space there. I was very surprised that he went for it anyway.”
Niki Lauda initially sided with Rosberg. Post-race analysis painted a more nebulous picture. This was not perceived within the team as a one-driver-to-blame incident like Spa 2014. Nor did the stewards – including driver steward Martin Donnelly – see any reason to take action once they’d looked at it and heard the testimony of the drivers. “Lewis apologised for the incident,” said Toto Wolff, “for letting the team down…. There was a different opinion between all of us. But it could have been avoided by both sides. It is their responsibility to bring the cars home and they failed to do that. But it’s very difficult to attribute percentages of blame to each of them.”
It was inevitably going to come some day and after 40-odd races between two guys fighting for the title in the best car, it eventually did. The racing instincts of each of them in reacting to the situation they were in were natural and justifiable. You don’t get too many opportunities to pass on track around Barcelona – the first lap represents a key moment. A first lap where the leader is suddenly compromised is an irresistible invitation to the driver behind. From Rosberg’s perspective, it was imperative he defend with zero ambiguity – especially given their history. So it played out as it did.
So now Red Bull was running 1-2, Ricciardo ahead of Verstappen. Max had fought out turn one side-by-side with a fast-starting Vettel and prevailed. Räikkönen had made a poor wheel-spinning start and dropped behind them and the fast-starting Toro Rosso of Sainz. Vettel got onto the astroturf exiting turn three, losing him a lot of momentum, allowing Sainz to pounce – going around the outside of the Ferrari in turn four to go third. Then came the safety car and the order behind it was: Ricciardo, Verstappen, Sainz, Vettel, Räikkönen, Bottas, Pérez, the fast-starting Button, Alonso (unusually, a poor start), Grosjean, Kvyat, Hulkenberg, Magnussen, Gutiérrez, Palmer, Nasr, Ericsson, Wehrlein, Massa and Haryanto (the only driver to start on mediums rather than the softs).
Kvyat had passed Magnussen and Hulkenberg under the safety car and would have to allow them back ahead when racing resumed. The mess was cleared up, the safety car came in at the end of the third lap, Ricciardo pulled out of DRS range of his team-mate and attention switched to the Ferraris blocked up behind the slower Toro Rosso of Sainz.
There was implicit embarrassment in having the car of the ‘other’ Italian team, using last year’s Ferrari motor, running ahead of both Scuderia’s cars. Sergio Marchionne – here for a meeting with Mercedes’ Dr Zetsche about the sport’s future earlier in the day – looked on. Vettel hassled and probed Sainz’s defences which were perfect. But so much slower was the Toro Rosso that it was only a matter of time. Vettel finally got through with the help of DRS and a double-dummy move down to turn one to begin the seventh lap. He was already 5.5s behind Ricciardo – but once in clear air he was going faster than either Daniel or Max. Alarm bells began ringing on the Red Bull pitwall. The Ferrari’s disappointing pace of qualifying had not carried through to race day. A few laps of hard running and the tyre under temperature righted itself to reveal the quick underlying car.
Räikkönen took a further three laps to find a way by Sainz, with a near repeat of Vettel’s move. He’d tried there on the previous lap but wasn’t clearly enough ahead once Sainz had refused to yield, sending Kimi onto the run-off area. Sainz pitted the lap after being passed by Räikkönen and a couple of laps later would lose out to Bottas, courtesy of struggling to get the fresh mediums up to temperature as Valtteri continued with a good pace on his softs before pitting, his pace also jumping him ahead of Pérez.
2) What drove Red Bull and Ferrari to split their strategies?
“We could see that Ferrari’s pace was probably better than ours,” explained Christian Horner of what they were thinking on Red Bull’s pit wall. On the 10th lap, with Ricciardo and Verstappen in the low 1m 31s, Vettel went around in 1m 30.3s. Before it was too late – before Vettel got himself to within undercut range – they had to bring both cars in. Ricciardo arrived in the pits on lap 11, Verstappen next lap, each fitted with a set of fresh mediums. These tyres were around 0.8s slower than the soft but degraded only by around 0.1s per lap rather than the 0.2s of the softs – and pretty much everyone would switch to them at the first stops.
Red Bull’s first stops were late enough that a two-stop was still feasible for both – but it deferred the decision until the second stops, depending on what Ferrari chose to do next. For now, Vettel remained out there, leading the race and still setting a good pace, only around 0.5s slower than the fresh-tyred Red Bulls. He eventually came in on lap 15 – rejoining in third, less than 5s off the lead and set to be able to go longer to the second stops – and therefore be on fresher, faster tyres for the last stint.
But that still wasn’t yet a certain race-winning strategy for Ferrari. You need to be around 2s faster than the car ahead here to be sure of overtaking it – and if they all remained on a two-stop Vettel would still be having to pass on track. This was going to require Ferrari to come up with a strategic answer: three-stopping. To spread the risk of that, Räikkönen – running just a few seconds behind at a similar pace, in fourth place – would be left on a two-stop.
If they could just use their slightly greater pace to get Vettel within undercut range of Verstappen before the second pit stop window opened – but without overworking the tyres – it potentially placed Red Bull in an awkward situation. That’s exactly what Seb did.
With Vettel already effectively in place to pass Verstappen, it forced Red Bull to keep Max on a two-stop (to at least give the possibility of beating three-stopping Vettel). Which in turn forced it to defend Ricciardo’s lead against a two-pronged/two-strategy Ferrari pincer movement. Ferrari’s pressure meant Red Bull now needed to spread their bet too – because it wasn’t at this stage clear if the tyres could be made to last long enough to allow a two-stopper to beat a three-stopper. But with Verstappen already having to do a two (because otherwise he was certain to be beaten by Vettel), that meant that Ricciardo, by default, would be the Red Bull driver trying for a three.
In hindsight, should they have kept both cars on a two-stop? In which case the finishing order would likely have been Ricciardo-Vettel-Verstappen. But in real time, when the decision had to be made, that could’ve proved a disastrous decision that turned a 1-3 into a 3-4. Ferrari’s greater pace had forced them into this Hobson’s choice. Hindsight says that whichever way they chose, it would have been a 1-3 finish – only with the drivers transposed.
“Vettel was clearly three-stopping so we had to take a tactical decision at that point to say ‘do we try and cover Vettel with one of our cars’,” said Horner. “The best car which we believed had the best chance of winning the race was the lead car [Ricciardo] and we elected to go for the three stop with him.”
This decision turned out to be disastrous for Ricciardo – and not great for Vettel either. It won Verstappen the race. “I cannot blame the team,” said Seb later “because I was the one pushing to go down the road of attack. It didn’t work.”
Ricciardo: “In hindsight, a three-stop strategy was the wrong thing to do, but maybe during the race it seemed like the right thing to the team. Winning with a three-stop required that I overtake two cars on track. Which isn’t very feasible around here.” There was clearly some frustration that a decision he was against had been imposed – and lost him the race.
There was another possibility: to have used Verstappen to back-up Vettel – and thereby allow Ricciardo to pull out the necessary gap not to be under threat. “With the respective end-of-straight speed of our car and Ferrari’s, that would have been a very risky strategy,” suggested Horner.
So Ricciardo was brought in from the lead on the 28th lap – as third place Vettel was dangerously close (just 2.2s off the lead) to being able to undercut both Red Bulls. He was fitted with a set of softs. To have fitted the slower-to-warm mediums at this point would’ve been too risky to being ‘overcut’ by Vettel. Ferrari brought Seb in on the next lap and matched Ricciardo’s tyre strategy. Confirmed in their two-stop roles, Verstappen and Räikkönen were left out in first and second separated by 4s. Again, Ferrari’s greater pace was evident, as Kimi closed relentlessly up on Max.
By lap 33 Kimi was nearing undercut range – forcing Red Bull to bring Verstappen in. He was underway on his fresh mediums – but there were 32 laps still to go. Could they last that long? Räikkönen pitted next lap. Max was only around 15s off Ricciardo and Vettel who each had another stop to make – and a stop would cost a total of around 22s. Verstappen and Räikkönen were certain therefore to soon be first and second – but they would then have the fresher-tyred Ricciardo and Vettel coming back at them. “I knew the Ferrari was a bit faster than us,” said Max, “so at that stage I just let Kimi catch up and then controlled it from there.”
Ferrari threw the strategic dice again – by bringing in Vettel from Ricciardo’s tail very early. On lap 37, after a stint of just eight laps. To have stopped Ricciardo the next lap in response would have served no purpose – Vettel’s new-tyred out-lap would have undercut him easily past the old-tyred Ricciardo in-lap. Track position had already been lost to the Ferrari. They would instead try for a later stop and hope the fresher tyres would allow Ricciardo to overtake on-track.
Daniel was brought in on the 42nd of the 66 laps and rejoined now fourth, 7s behind Vettel. His new tyre grip saw him reduce that gap quickly, helped by the fact Vettel seemed to be struggling on the medium tyre. By the 50th lap they were pretty much nose-to-tail – but still 9s behind two-stopping Verstappen and Räikkönen. Crucially, they were not now lapping much faster than them. Vettel’s tyres, after all, were only three laps newer than Verstappen’s, two laps newer than Räikkönen’s (the penalty of buying track position over Ricciardo by making the third stop early). “A couple of laps into that final stint I realised I wasn’t that much quicker than the two cars ahead,” said Seb, “so I figured that the deg on the mediums wasn’t huge. I think we struggled more on this tyre than the Red Bull – so I just switched my focus to Daniel behind.”
Ricciardo – because he was limited now to the struggling Vettel’s pace, without the end-of-straight speed to pass, even with the help of DRS – lost any chance of using his new-tyre grip to challenge the two-stoppers. Unless something drastic happened to the old tyres of Verstappen and Räikkönen, Seb and Daniel were now fighting for their scraps. Ricciardo launched one down the inside of the Ferrari at turn one on the 58th lap from a long way back. Breathtakingly late on the brakes, he actually scrabbled ahead briefly – Vettel forced to give him room – but ran out wide on the exit. Seb ranted over the radio, much as he’d done about Kvyat in China, though later in more reflective mood accepted that it was just hard racing. Ricciardo had another wheel-locking sniff a few laps later, but he just didn’t quite have straightline speed to make it work.
Remarkably, given the Red Bull musical chairs story in the lead up to this race – and how it was unfolding for Verstappen – Kvyat was involved in a starring cameo role at this point. A lap down, he was chasing Gutiérrez and Button for a lower points finish after making a late stop for new soft tyres. This combination of new softs and a low fuel load allowed him to set the fastest lap of the race in the Toro Rosso – but more to the point, he was gaining fast on Ricciardo/Vettel and looking to un-lap himself. He was eventually dissuaded from forcing that issue.
Räikkönen had been running for a long time less than a second behind Verstappen, but could find no chink in the teenager’s defences. Crucially, the Red Bull had better traction than the Ferrari out of the slow chicane at the end of the lap, enabling him to pull himself out of DRS/slipstream threat. Räikkönen never did get quite close enough to put one down the inside.
He may have acquired the lead through a strategic gamble by his team that happened to work in his favour – but with that opportunity in his gifted hands, Max wasn’t about to let it slip. “We knew that the two stop was going to be under a lot of pressure at the end of the race in terms of degradation,” said Horner, “but Max has been able to look after his tyres incredibly well to make sure that he had just enough left to fend off Kimi over the last five or six laps; just incredible.”
“In the last eight laps Kimi was right with me. It was like driving on ice,” said Verstappen. “But I know it’s difficult to overtake here so I just managed the pressure and the tyres – made sure I did no front locking, didn’t slide in the last sector, making sure I got a good exit out the chicane.” And so, just like that, history was made. A wildly jubilant teenager gave himself cramp in his back celebrating in the car. But that really wasn’t such a price to pay.
The rest? They seemed almost incidental amid the celebrations, but there were some great performances there. The oldest driver in the field finished a disappointed 0.6s behind the youngest. A few seconds back from Räikkönen, Vettel remained ahead of Ricciardo who, on the penultimate lap, had his left-rear tyre suddenly deflate – suspected to be from debris damage. He had comfortably enough time over fifth-placed Bottas to limp to the pits and have a new set fitted. Bottas’ place represented the maximum from the Williams around here, while Sainz was delighted with his sixth place. Given the buzz around Verstappen, it should not be forgotten just how close a match Sainz was to him – and this was a weekend-long super-strong sustained performance that flattered the Toro Rosso.
Eighteen seconds behind, Force India’s Sergio Pérez just held off the three-stopping Felipe Massa – good progress from Felipe’s 18th-place start. Kvyat’s delay through backing off to avoid lapping Ricciardo/Vettel meant he couldn’t challenge Button’s ninth place, but he did managed to nudge Gutiérrez out of the points. Ericsson in 12th used a three-stop strategy to finish three places ahead of frustrated two-stopping Sauber team-mate Nasr. They had earlier narrowly avoided colliding when Nasr put a pass on Ericsson at turn one.
In between them, Palmer bumped and raced himself ahead of Renault team-mate Magnussen – with the latter awarded a 5s penalty for contact with his team-mate. Wehrlein led Haryanto throughout in the Manor challenge. Grosjean went out with no brakes, having earlier lost time to replace a failed front wing. The crowd groaned when Alonso stopped on lap 45 with a sudden power loss. “After the start I was behind my team-mate all the race and that was it,” he said afterwards, a little miffed, it seems. “I was quite a bit faster, but they decided that I had to stay behind and I stayed there.” Hulkenberg pulled the Force India off with flames coming out the back after 20 laps. And the Mercedes drivers spent most of the race in a meeting…