Leclerc looked to have it all under control despite Verstappen’s relentless pace. It was a fantastic display from them both, the two cars near-enough equal over the lap. The Red Bull was faster at the end of the straights, the Ferrari accelerated onto them harder and was quicker though the seven slower corners. But so long as Leclerc made no error under this extreme pressure, he looked to have Verstappen covered.
Alonso was now at the head of the midfield but on the 36th lap he lost drive around the back of the circuit. A few seconds later something similar happened to Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren. They were both trying to coast back to the pits. Alonso eventually stopped out on track and the virtual safety car came into force. Ricciardo got as far as the pit entry lane before he too stopped. Hamilton was told to pit but also that he might be told not to at the last moment if the pitlane was closed. “Ok, you need to tell me, then,” he radioed. Encountering double yellows for Alonso’s crawling car, Hamilton initially was reluctant to pass it until realising it was stopping. Having not heard again from the team and seeing the stationary McLaren in the pit entry Hamilton assumed the pit lane was closed – and continued on. By the time they reminded him to pit, it was already too late. Between them, they’d messed the opportunity up. But it was only for seventh, at best. Instead, he’d rejoin near the back and make a couple of places up before the end to take that solitary point.
The DRS fight phase
Of more significance than the VSC’s effect on Hamilton’s race was how it impacted upon the leader Leclerc’s. He’d won the restart easily enough, but now his worn, hard tyres were cold. So were Verstappen’s of course but the Red Bull could warm them up quicker – something that Sainz also noticed as he fended off Perez.
That extra lap or so the Ferrari needed to get the tyre temperature meant that Leclerc could no longer keep Verstappen out of that DRS zone. Once that spell had been broken, Leclerc had a real job on his hands. Their fight was no longer one step removed but up close and personal, wheel-to-wheel.
First of all Verstappen got the DRS around the flat-out sweep before the final corner and passed the Ferrari around the outside there. But that final turn is preceded by the DRS detection point for the main straight and so Leclerc used that to repass. Next time Verstappen had another DRS-assisted run at the Ferrari around the sweep but this time played it smarter and backed off. In response, so did Leclerc! With each of them trying not to be first past that line (the same game as Verstappen and Hamilton were playing here last year), Verstappen then locked up his brakes. Leclerc took this as an opportunity to go – and being earlier on the gas enabled him to stay in front despite Verstappen’s DRS.
It took Max a couple of laps to get back within the DRS zone but when he did so he was able to place himself on the inside line but remain behind – even to the extent of closing his DRS and feathering the throttle on the approach. That finally gave him the clean DRS pass onto the pit straight – and with Leclerc’s rear tyres now beginning to get too hot, the race was decided.
Sainz fended off Perez, Russell took his lonely fifth and Ocon was best of the rest fending off the attacking McLaren of Lando Norris as Pierre Gasly, Magnussen and Hamilton completed the points scorers.