Verstappen’s stop was a quick one and although Bottas emerged ahead a lap later, the Red Bull swept by into Turn 5 thanks to his warmer tyres to take second place.
Hamilton came in a lap later to cover both and emerged comfortably ahead, but at this point it was Perez in the lead as he stayed out.
“It was pretty clear that our race was pretty safe from behind and we had nothing to lose at that point,” the Mexican said. “That’s why we tried something different, in case of a Safety Car, fastest laps at the end, but once you give that margin to the cars ahead it is hard to recover.”
Perez was in no man’s land, while Norris had Charles Leclerc covered in the fight for fifth. Those positions were somewhat processional, with Esteban Ocon providing the action as he climbed to seventh ahead of his team-mate Fernando Alonso, as Sainz faded to finish outside the top ten after the decision to run the second stint on medium tyres – rather than hards – failed to pay off.
That late slide allowed Pierre Gasly to salvage a point in tenth, having been overtaken by Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo in the closing stages, with the Australian putting in a very solid recovery after his Q1 exit.
Ahead of them, it still looked like a three-car race for the win, although one that Hamilton had control of. The gap remained around three seconds but Verstappen had to worry more about Bottas behind than mounting an attack for the lead until the Finn – after a direct message of encouragement from Toto Wolff – suffered an exhaust sensor issue that dropped him five seconds adrift.
“When you start from pole position there’s only one target for the race and that is to win the race and that didn’t happen today, so I’m disappointed,” Bottas said. “I don’t really know why in the first stint I didn’t have the pace, it felt like everything, in terms of race start and re-start was good from our side but I could see quite quickly in the race that we just didn’t have the pace like Lewis and Max had and I don’t really have an explanation.
“It was better on the hard tyre, at some points I was catching Max and then I had an issue with one sensor, I started to lose power and lost about five seconds to Max and that was it.”
“The whole track limit debate is just frustrating. It’s been brutal for us across the first three events”
The pressure was off Verstappen from behind but he couldn’t close on Hamilton, so when Bottas stopped for soft tyres to chase the fastest lap, Red Bull followed suit. Verstappen looked to have snatched the extra point as he pipped Bottas’ effort by 0.016sec, only to see his final lap deleted for once again exceeding track limits, and once again Turn 14 was the source of frustration.
“The margins are so tight that track limits have been quite expensive for us this weekend,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “Obviously we need to be perfect but there were strengths and weaknesses to the cars. Let’s not forget that Lewis dropped the ball in a pretty big way at Imola a couple of weeks ago and got away with it quite lightly…
“It’s inevitable when you’re pushing at the limit like these guys are it’s all about those fine margins. The whole track limit debate is just frustrating. It’s been brutal for us across the first three events – the win in Bahrain, the pole position yesterday and then the fastest lap, so it’s been pretty expensive for us.”
Hamilton might have dropped the ball in Imola, but he wasn’t going to do the same again and the championship leader acknowledges just what it is currently taking to come out on top in the fight at the front.
“I think none of us are under any illusions as to just how hard it is out there for us, how close the battle is, and how we are all giving absolutely everything in our day-to-day lives in order to be best prepared and deliver on the weekends,” Hamilton said. “The pressure is immense between us all and I think there’s a huge amount of strength between the three of us and with the other drivers here.
“Of course it’s always great when you have a race like today where you are able to follow and overtake and capitalise on the small margins and gaps that you have. At the same time, look at the restart – Max has been pulling absolutely everything out of the Red Bull and giving us a great run for our money. I think it’s going to be like this for the rest of the season, which I think can be incredibly exciting.”
It definitely can be, but so too can a championship hinge on what feels like relatively insignificant moments early in the year. Today’s will be small ones Verstappen hopes don’t prove costly.