But it was soon clear why Verstappen had needed to hold the lead. Hamilton had the pace to pull away, even as Red Bull complained to race director Michael Masi about the decision to not penalise the race leader. So the championship leader – on count back of race wins – needed to try and force the issue and made an early pit stop.
Coming in on lap 13 to switch to hard tyres was before Pirelli had recommended, but Hamilton similarly had to respond and matched the strategy a lap later. When he emerged his lead was around eight seconds. But the spanner in the works was the number two drivers.
Valtteri Bottas had made a poor start and was stuck in traffic in eighth place, but Sergio Perez had nailed his launch off the line to easily clear Lando Norris and run third. After the two stops, he was leading and told to hold Hamilton up any way he could.
When Hamilton used DRS to pass towards Turn 6 it looked like a meek effort from Perez, but he regained the spot brilliantly under braking, with Hamilton then pulling ahead on traction out of Turn 7. Perez had DRS though and was back down the inside into Turn 9, retaining the lead for the crucial final sector where it is tough to pass.
Echoing Hamilton’s own tactics from 2016, Perez then drove a remarkably slow final sector while simultaneously not letting the Mercedes through, and stayed ahead until the hairpin on the next lap. When Hamilton finally got ahead with DRS, Verstappen was right with them, within two seconds of his main target. Perez jumped out of the way, his job done.
“It was a very critical point of the race,” Perez said. “We really need to go through to hold Lewis; basically he had the race under control… I think Max was 10 seconds or more behind, so that would have given him just enough room for all the windows, with all the virtuals and safety cars, so I’m extremely happy that I could do something.
“I was on extremely old tyres and there was not much I could do but I managed to take a couple of seconds out of Lewis. I’m sure Lewis will understand. As a driver you don’t want to get involved in the championship; they’ve worked so hard for it in this moment, but it’s my team. I’ve done it for my team, and I’m sure the sport and everyone will understand it.”
Hamilton pulled clear of Verstappen once again to the tune of 5.7 seconds over the next 15 laps, and this was just when it looked like it was going to end with a whimper, and the first lap the main controversy.