At first it seemed like a routine Hamilton victory from pole, stretching gradually away with Bottas protecting him and Verstappen doing no more than hanging on to the second Merc. But a Mick Schumacher crash on the 10th lap brought out the red flags and in that moment the race changed from routine to extraordinary as Verstappen saw opportunity.
Verstappen had assumed the lead as the Mercs pitted under the Schumacher safety car. When that safety car was supplanted by the red flags, Verstappen’s prospects came alive, as he could now get his tyre change for free. In his reaction to Hamilton out-dragging him off the line – all four wheels on the run-off to retake the position – we got a foretaste of how Verstappen was going to run his race.
There wasn‘t time to instruct him to give the place back – because there was almost immediately another red flag. Sergio Perez had clipped Charles Leclerc and spun at Turn 3, triggering a big accident at the back in which Nikita Mazepin crashed the remaining Haas into George Russell’s Williams.
Race director Michael Masi instead insisted Verstappen drop two places on the second restart (with Esteban Ocon on ‘pole’, having taking advantage of Hamilton’s evasive action). But to counter that Red Bull had fitted him with medium compound tyres, with almost everyone else on hards. These allowed him to go from third into the lead with a beautifully committed move inside Hamilton.
As Verstappen’s tyres wore down Hamilton came back him. With the aid of DRS he got ahead on the pit straight – only for Verstappen to again refuse to surrender around the outside run-off, with a big oversteer moment that forced Hamilton off track too, thereby getting the Red Bull back ahead. Again it was judged not a legitimate move and he was ordered to give the place back.
This is where it got really strange. Verstappen decided he’d slow just before the DRS detection point, get Hamilton to pass him there so that he’d get DRS on him and slipstream back ahead. Hamilton didn’t want to do that and so delayed passing him. Verstappen tried to further ensure he got his way by braking – at 2.4g. Hamilton clipped the back of the Red Bull but remarkably the front wing was still working.
Verstappen sprinted away, the Red Bull plan now being to anticipate a five-second penalty by getting more than 5sec lead. But he couldn’t – as Hamilton tracked him. So a second attempt at letting him by was made – at Turn 23. Hamilton came by, Verstappen immediately counter-attacked into 24 to take it back again.
That wasn’t deemed satisfactory and just as the stewards then imposed the five-second penalty, Hamilton was diving down Verstappen’s inside at the final corner as the Dutchman let him past once more, the decisive move for victory.