Verstappen led away but the sight of a Haas crashing at Turn Three was repeated from four months ago as Nikita Mazepin’s debut lasted just a few hundred metres before he dropped at the back of the field on cold tyres and spun into the barrier. The safety car was required for two laps before racing resumed, and Verstappen had already complained of a problem accelerating out of slow-speed corners, later diagnosed as a differential issue that he had to manage throughout the race.
With Charles Leclerc up to third ahead of Valtteri Bottas on the opening lap, three different cars spread across the track on the restart but Verstappen stayed in the lead ahead of Hamilton, as another virtual safety car interrupted matters before a full racing lap had been completed. Pierre Gasly – starting from fifth on medium tyres compared to softs for those around him – dropped behind the two McLarens but clumsily clipped Daniel Ricciardo at Turn Six and broke his front wing, leaving debris on track.
Behind that, Mick Schumacher became the second Haas to spin, only going one corner further than Mazepin had managed on the first race start before swapping ends but being able to continue.
Once the race finally got into a proper opening stint, Verstappen looked comfortable for a while, pulling two seconds clear of Hamilton and managing his pace despite his diff complaints. That prompted Mercedes to try something different, with Hamilton pitting on lap 13 for hard tyres, opening up a potential three-stop strategy but also guaranteeing track position once Verstappen didn’t respond instantly.
“There were a few things going on throughout the whole race,” Verstappen said. “They undercut us and we were just sticking to our strategy, which I think was working fine but the problem is with these cars it’s so hard to pass. Once you have that track position it showed today that it’s just super powerful.”
With the top two out of sequence, the battle was set up to come to a head late on, but there was no shortage of drama elsewhere in the interim. Lando Norris had got the better of a good scrap with Leclerc for fourth after going wheel-to-wheel through Turn Four, and Perez had been making moves after his pit lane start and an early stop for more medium tyres, climbing into the top three before his second stop.
There was also action from young and old as Yuki Tsunoda recovered from a tentative first lap to approach the points, and Fernando Alonso used an undercut to fight with Lance Stroll and Ricciardo in the lower reaches of the top ten.
Although Bottas had threatened to join the party at the front at one stage, he was dropped out of contention by a slow second pit stop and couldn’t live with the pace as the final stint progressed regardless. Hamilton stopped for a second time at the halfway stage on lap 28, and Verstappen pulled out a solid medium tyre stint before switching to hards 12 laps later.
With such an advantage, it seemed certain that Verstappen would reel in the 8.8sec lead Hamilton had and he started quickly — setting the fastest lap — before the jeopardy of his situation was highlighted.