Mercedes estimate that cost Bottas around 0.75sec of lap time, and that was the first bit of fortune that fell Hamilton’s way. Overtaking was clearly going to be extremely difficult so, in order to at least maintain track position, Verstappen pitted early to cover off an undercut from Hamilton. As the leader, Bottas responded to protect his lead but that left Hamilton in clear air and Verstappen stuck behind a slow, damaged car.
“I thought I would get a better start today but it didn’t turn out the way I would have liked and I fell to third,” Hamilton said. “My next strategy was to try and get by the Red Bull but it was just impossible to get close and in trying to get close I was killing the front tyres. So I backed off and just tried to keep within distance.
“Then Max stopped much earlier than I thought he would and Valtteri stopped to cover him and there was no way I was doing the same. Naturally, at the beginning of the race we get given a bunch of different options of strategy and I understood that if I was in that position the only way to do something was to do something different – to extend as long as I could. But I didn’t know how long that tyre would go.”
The medium tyre would go long enough thanks to that often unsung talent of Hamilton for finding the sweet spot where tyre wear is minimised while pace is maintained. He had built up a lead that was big enough to allow him to pit and emerge ahead of his two main rivals while Bottas struggled. But as he hit traffic, that was starting to look a little less certain. Then the racing gods smiled on him once again as Esteban Ocon coasted to a halt with a suspected gearbox issue and the Renault sat stricken near Variante Alta.
A virtual safety car was needed to push it off the track, and it was deployed just before Hamilton reached the pit entry. Thirty seconds later he was leaving the pits and the VSC ended.
“The start was good, I got Lewis, then I was trying to stay with Valtteri,” Verstappen explained. “We both pitted – I tried to do the undercut – and then he had damage on the floor so we were losing a lot of lap time. I couldn’t get close, this track is so hard to pass, and then of course Lewis jumped us.”
Still, Verstappen put pressure on the ailing Bottas and regular lock-ups at Rivazza hinted at the difficulty the Finn was facing. Eventually he went too wide, and despite brake-checking Verstappen at the final corner, the Red Bull was through with DRS. It looked like a cruise to second from there as he instantly matched Hamilton’s pace, until 15 laps to go.
“Once I got past Valtteri I think the pace was good, the car was feeling quite good and suddenly on the straight I lost the car because there was a tyre blowout. So I don’t know exactly what happened but when I looked at the car there was nothing broken on the car.
“It was a big shame because it was a lot more fun as well, pushing and trying to stay with them so it was a lot of fun out there. So it’s a shame of course to not be on that podium, but not only be on that podium but be second.”
Traffic was such a big factor that Sergio Perez had climbed to third at that stage, having started 11th on the medium tyre. Running longer than those on the softs promoted him, but Magnussen doing the same – after his clash with Vettel – held up Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc, Alex Albon, Daniil Kvyat and the McLarens behind.