Suddenly the race was there for Red Bull’s taking if it could clear Russell, who was proving a worthy adversary. Perez had caught the back of the lead battle quickly after a later first stop and was unhappy at not having the favour returned by Verstappen as Red Bull told him to hold station, but just one lap after Leclerc retired Verstappen was called into the pits for his second stop early in order to go for a three-stop strategy, releasing Perez to attack.
The Mexican soon cleared Russell into Turn 1 as his DRS was working, and pulled away in the lead. Verstappen set chasing down the Mercedes once again, and this time had such a tyre advantage that Russell made his second stop on lap 36, just as the Red Bull appeared in his mirrors.
Planning a two-stop, Perez was frustrated at Red Bull’s decision to hold him back, as he felt it affected his chances of making the strategy work.
“I only felt that in the first stint when I gave the position to Max that I was told that I was going to get it back,” Perez said. “And when I was on the two-stop I felt like I could have gone through Max and George a bit earlier to try and make the strategy work, but it probably wouldn’t have still been enough.”
Perez’s second stop came a lap after Russell’s in order to protect his lead, effectively switching him to a three-stop but after Verstappen had gained a big advantage. So when Perez was told to let his team-mate through into the lead after the Dutchman’s third stop, he replied: “That’s very unfair. But OK.”
From there it was plain sailing for Verstappen, and Perez could afford a third stop after Russell had completed his set and was a more distant third. But the other Mercedes was carving through the field with remarkable pace, as Hamilton moved into the top eight by halfway and suddenly emerged as a threat for the top four.
“Having seen what it was like back in Jeddah where I started 15th and struggled to get into the top ten, I was thinking this is impossible to get back into the points,” Hamilton said. “But they said no I was on for eighth. I couldn’t understand it and thought they were definitely being super optimistic. But I thought let’s give it everything and see where I come out.”
After his first-lap puncture, Hamilton effectively two-stopped and when he made his final one he was soon up to sixth as he and Sainz reeled in Valtteri Bottas ahead. Bottas was trying a two-stop strategy work but was powerless to defend as Sainz used DRS to help overtake – a common sight that worked well this weekend – and Hamilton then went round the outside of his former team-mate at Turn 3 in a crucial move that kept Sainz in range.
With six laps to go, Hamilton was on the outside again, this time under braking for Turn 1 and swept around Sainz for fourth and to complete a stunning comeback. Or so he thought.
Temperature concerns then forced Mercedes to slow both cars dramatically, and Hamilton gave up the place he’d earned starting the penultimate lap, but he still came home fifth with Russell – who felt Mercedes halved the gap to the frontrunners this weekend – able to hold onto the podium place ahead of Sainz.
“When I was battling with Max, I was managing tyres, the engine was overheating, then trying to go as fast as possible to keep them behind,” Russell said. “You’re juggling so many things.
“And then in the last five, six laps, it was literally just bring it home, get it to the end of a race, because we were right on the limit throughout the whole race. But the team did a great job to not allow us to go over that limit and have to retire the car.”
Despite so many concerns for front-running teams, in the end Leclerc was one of only two retirements along with Zhou Guanyu. Magnussen limped home 17th after his contact with Hamilton – beating Alex Albon who was penalised for exceeding track limits too many times – while the other Haas of Mick Schumacher faded from an excellent start, going from sixth on lap one to finish 14th.
Sixth at the flag went to Bottas ahead of Esteban Ocon, Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso and Yuki Tsunoda, with the Alpine pair showing strong race pace and Tsunoda impressing. It was his third point-scoring finish of the season as team-mate Pierre Gasly picked up a penalty for tapping Lance Stroll into a spin, moving him five points clear of the Frenchman.
That’s one fewer point than Verstappen now leads Leclerc by, although the two could well have been level but for Red Bull’s team orders. And with Leclerc’s earlier pace particularly strong, it’s perhaps understandable Christian Horner’s team wanted to make hay while the sun burned down in Barcelona.
2022 Spanish Grand Prix results
*Includes additional point for fastest lap