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.
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 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.
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.”
It’s a zone that Verstappen might have been in himself, but his machinery wouldn’t allow him to get close to Hamilton this time round.
“The start was OK and I could get into the tow of Lewis so I could get by Valtteri into Turn One,” Verstappen explained. “I tried to follow Lewis a bit, initially he was just managing tyres so I tried to back out of it as well but of course then Valtteri was back into P3 so you can’t drop back too much.
“Then as soon as Lewis started to push a bit more I just couldn’t follow the same pace and he just drove off. From then onwards I tried to do my own pace and do the fastest strategy we could do to try and stay ahead of Valtteri. That worked out quite well today, I’m very happy with that. We split the two Mercedes cars again so I don’t think there is much more I can do at the moment.”
That strategy was a two-stop, with the latter two stints on mediums. Hamilton matched it after forcefully telling his team not to put him back on softs, while Bottas had tried a final stint on the soft compound to do something different to Verstappen. When he couldn’t close a seven-second gap, he pit again in the closing stages to secure the extra point for fastest lap.
Racing Point had enough performance over those behind to split strategies, with Perez one-stopping and crossing the line fourth, but dropping behind Stroll due to a time penalty. Perez was targeted for ignoring blue flags when being lapped by Hamilton, losing five seconds at the flag.
McLaren’s strategic choice paid off as Carlos Sainz jumped Albon, getting aggressive with his defence at Turn Four to hold off the Red Bull when he emerged from the pits for a final stint on medium tyres. It proved crucial as Albon – on older mediums after the erroneous hard tyre experiment – couldn’t stick with him, and although Sainz passed the one-stopping Sebastian Vettel for sixth, Albon couldn’t reach the Ferrari by the flag.
Despite the points from 11th on the grid, there was still a strange spell in the race for Vettel after he stopped on lap 29 for soft tyres. Leclerc had pit on the same lap after starting on softs so there was potential to risk a one-stop, and Vettel told his team: “You need to let me know now what you want to do in terms of pace.”
The reply took a number of laps to come and angered Vettel when he was asked if he could go to the end – having been pushing to know if that’s what the team wanted – but he still executed well after admitting he had nothing to lose.
Albon finished a chastening lap behind his team-mate in eighth, shadowed by Pierre Gasly and Lando Norris as the final four point-paying positions were covered by 2.1sec.
It won’t go down as a classic, but it’s still a result that needs noting as Hamilton scored the 156th podium finish of his career to move clear of Michael Schumacher on the all-time list. His 88th victory also moves Schumacher’s record of 91 even closer, giving Hamilton the chance of matching the seven-time world champion at Ferrari’s 1000th race at Mugello.
“I don’t really know what to say to those things,” said Hamilton. “It’s just very strange. All of us drivers here grew up watching Michael and dreaming of one day being here. What is happening right now is far beyond what I dreamed as a kid and I’m incredibly grateful of the opportunity that I’m given every day.
“I think Michael was obviously an incredible athlete and driver and I always just feel really humbled and really honoured to be mentioned in the same light as a driver like him and Ayrton [Senna] and [Juan Manuel] Fangio. It’s pretty cool, and I hope the Hamilton family are proud also.”