More pit stops doesn’t always mean more drama, and the Spanish Grand Prix proved exactly that as Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes flexed their muscles in response to Max Verstappen’s Silverstone win.
With high temperatures forecast throughout the weekend in Spain, all of the questions ahead of the race were surrounding Red Bull’s chances and whether they could repeat the kind of performance that they had shown just one week ago in the heat of the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.
Verstappen’s third place on the grid put him in a solid position to find out, and the intrigue only grew when he jumped Valtteri Bottas off the line to run second behind pole-sitter Hamilton.
For a few laps the Red Bull sat close to the Mercedes but the ease with which Hamilton kept Verstappen out of DRS range was a telling sign of what was to come.
“Gap is beginning to close a little on Lewis,” said Verstappen’s engineer on lap five.
“Yeah I know, but he is just driving super slow,” came the reply.
Sure enough, Hamilton started to pull away as the soft tyre held up well for the first stint. No such tyre worries compared to Silverstone.
Stroll slips past Bottas as Hamilton leads at the start
Ahead, Hamilton remained out of DRS range of Verstappen, and tyre management appeared to be the order of the day for the top runners.
Bottas had dropped to fourth off the line as Lance Stroll displayed what is an often-overlooked strength of his, namely his racecraft on the opening lap. The young Canadian was squeezed on the inside as Bottas found himself sandwiched between the Racing Point and Verstappen, but Stroll judged it to perfection to sweep into third at Turn One.
It was to be a short-lived run there, as the activation of DRS saw Bottas re-take third by Turn One and scamper up the road after the leaders. Verstappen complained that his rear tyres were going off on lap 17, but Bottas was too far back to take advantage as Red Bull extended the stint – much to their driver’s annoyance – to ensure a first pit stop would release him into clear air ahead of Stroll and Sergio Perez in fourth and fifth respectively.
The running order at the start of the race — and until the end
The two Racing Points were comfortably keeping Alex Albon at bay so Red Bull tried something different with the other car, but an early stop for hard tyres only dropped him into traffic. And as everyone knows, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is not an easy place to overtake at.
That was certainly true today, with the battle for the points seeing close running but no real wheel-to-wheel battling. Ferrari was already struggling before Charles Leclerc spun at the chicane just after halfway and failed to get moving for a while, with the team saying an electrical issue caused the power unit to switch off.
The bizarre moment threatened to bring out a safety car that could have spiced the race up, but Leclerc was able to get going again. The problem was he had just given up on restarting the car and so had undone his seatbelt, forcing him to come back to the pits where Ferrari opted to retire.
Seatbelt scramble: Mechanics attend to Leclerc’s restraints in the pits
Emiliano Morenatti/Pool via Getty Image
There was little in the way of offset strategies, as only McLaren opted for two stints on the softs to start with before switching to mediums, with the rest of the field changing compounds at their first stop. Regardless, the tyre delta was rarely big enough to induce overtaking moves, and it was all pretty processional.
A risk of rain also teased viewers without throwing in an added variable as a heavy thunderstorm skirted just five kilometers away from the track. Verstappen had noted the dark clouds first but all it served to do was force Hamilton to show more of the pace that he had in hand in order to cover off against a potential late twist.
His one moment of concern came after Antonio Giovinazzi barged his way past Romain Grosjean at Turn One, with slight contact in the battle for 16th breaking something off Grosjean’s car. The carbon was left on the exit of Turn Two and Hamilton hit it, but after reporting it to his team there was no damage.
“There was one moment when I think someone’s wing was on the exit of Turn Two and I went through it,” Hamilton said. “It was right where my right front would normally go, it was a big flap, and luckily at the last second I just managed to put it underneath the car.
“But other than that, no [worries]. It was a great, incredible effort from the team, which I’m so thankful for. It was a real shock for us I think, we were not expecting tyre performance to be as it was today and I know on my side I planned to manage the tyres like I did and sometimes you do but it doesn’t work out as you planned. Sometimes you have more deg than you thought but I had much better deg today than I did through P1 and P2 and I think that’s ultimately what made the difference.”
“Spectacular tyre management” Hamilton was told after crossing the line. “I was in a different zone there,” he replied. “I didn’t even know it was the last lap.”