After a clean first lap at the front had ended under safety car due to Esteban Ocon’s stricken Alpine – the Frenchman unlucky to see his front right suspension damaged after being sandwiched between an Alfa Romeo and Haas – the race restarted at the end of lap three and Norris was under attack instantly.
From third, Perez was close to the McLaren and went to the outside into Turn Four, getting ahead before the braking zone but with Norris able to stay alongside to the apex. With the high ground, the McLaren took the racing line and as Perez tried to hang on around the outside he was forced into the gravel and dropped to tenth place.
The stewards handed Norris a five-second time penalty, much to his annoyance.
“It’s a restart, I expect Sergio knows there’s gravel on the exit of that corner, it’s downhill, easy to run wide and that’s just what happens,” Norris said. “If you watch Formula 2 or Formula 3 or any category, people who try and go round the outside there and don’t commit to it end up in the gravel. That’s just the way that corner runs.
“So he took the risk and not me. He didn’t commit to his overtake the way he should have done and he put himself in the gravel. So I don’t feel like it was my mistake, but I don’t make the penalties.”
For what it’s worth, Christian Horner also felt it was a racing incident before the penalty was handed out, leaving Perez with a recovery drive to take on. Verstappen, meanwhile, was serenely pulling away as Norris held off Hamilton.
“I just had to be awake at the start, that I had a little bit of a gap,” Verstappen said. “I knew that if I could go past lap one, or the restart, I could do my own race, but you always have to do that first.”
Unlike a week ago, Norris fought hard and kept Hamilton at bay for 20 laps, only dropping to third when his penalty was announced. The battle prompted Hamilton to say on team radio after his overtake: “Such a great driver, Lando.”
But Hamilton’s luck was soon to change. While Norris and Bottas stopped on the same lap and the Finn emerged ahead due to Norris taking his penalty, Hamilton quickly picked up damage after his own stop and his hopes of limiting the damage to Verstappen took a hit.
“I lost a lot of downforce on the rear,” Hamilton said. “I just felt like I’d gone down a couple of steps on the rear wing … I wasn’t going over the kerbs anymore than anyone else so I have no idea where it happened. There was a lot of damage.
“I would have been second. I was in second when all of a sudden it obviously broke. It would have been an easy second generally but obviously not able to catch those guys ahead.”
Norris kept Bottas honest and the pair both reeled Hamilton in, so after a brief call from Mercedes to hold station, the decision was made to switch the cars. Hamilton was powerless to hold off Norris who then swept by into Turn Six, so he took a second stop for fresh tyres as he wasn’t under threat from behind.
That was because Perez had struggled to make progress and was held up trying to pass Daniel Ricciardo, who was enjoying a strong race. The fight allowed Charles Leclerc to close in, and Leclerc attempted to pass Perez around the outside of Turn Four in a carbon copy of the move Perez had tried on Norris. The outcome was the same too, as Leclerc ended up in the gravel and the Mexican got a five-second time penalty.
“I’m very sorry, because that’s not the way I like to race,” Perez said. “I’m not the kind of driver that races that way, but I was on very dirty air, on very hot tyres, very hot brakes. We were just trying to brake as late as possible – I haven’t seen the incidents, but I’m very sorry if I affected his race, because Charles is a driver that fights hard, but always on the limit, so I am the same and I’m not happy with myself for that.”
Perez references two incidents because a few laps later Leclerc tried the outside line at Turn Six, and a snap of oversteer from the Red Bull saw the Ferrari forced wide again. The result? You’ve guess it, another five-second penalty for Perez.
That opened the midfield battle up, because even though Perez did clear Ricciardo he needed to pull out a ten-second advantage to those behind who were all still fighting each other.
Leclerc attacked Ricciardo for a number of laps but couldn’t find a way through, so Carlos Sainz – running the alternate strategy of a mammoth 48-lap opening stint on hard tyres before a late stop for mediums – was allowed through and duly cleared the McLaren. Sainz also managed to hold the gap Perez to secure fifth at the flag by just 0.7sec.