Hamilton reels in Verstappen to win tactical Spanish GP

Lewis Hamilton closed to within two race wins of yet another magical ton after a tactical masterstroke from his Mercedes team saw him overtake Max Verstappen six laps before the end of the race.

Having conceded the lead off the line, Hamilton was forced to play a waiting game behind his closest championship rival and with both drivers on the soft compound tyre.

Before the start of the race, all the data led to a single tyre stop being the optimum tactic. But with Red Bull pitting first, Mercedes chose to gamble on an alternate strategy, stopping Hamilton again later in the race and allowing him to catch and pass his rival.

“First I want to acknowledge all the fans out here because this is one of the first races this year that we have had people come and watch, which is great to see,” said Hamilton after securing a fifth consecutive Spanish GP victory and sixth in total.

“I have just seen a British flag out there, which I haven’t seen for a long, long time.”

It was Hamilton who started in prime position, the seven-time world champion achieving a remarkable 100 pole positions to give him the best chance of victory.

But it was Verstappen who had the better start, making his Red Bull as wide as possible into Turn 1 as Charles Leclerc passed Valtteri Bottas for third on track. Making the most of his bold start, Verstappen immediately stretched his legs, pulling out over a second after the opening lap and escaping that crucial DRS gap.

“It was such a close start,” reflected Hamilton. “Obviously there was a lot of rubber down on the right-hand side and the Red Bull got a great start. After that just hunting. And I was so close for so long, and I didn’t think in doing that I was going to make the tyres last but I just managed to keep them in somehow.

“You can always come back from 20 odd seconds back but a great gamble and great strategy from my team.”

The advantage was quickly negated, the Alpha Tauri of Yuki Tsunoda grinding to a halt at the outside of Turn 13, bringing about a Safety Car.

Upon race resumption, Verstappen again put the pedal to the metal, getting the early jump on his rival. But this wasn’t going to be a race that Dutchman was going to scamper off with into the sunset.

Although Bahrain has recently overtaken the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as the pre-season F1 test bed, the Montmelo venue is one that most teams and drivers know like the back of their hands. As such, and is always the case in modern Formula One, this was another race that would be decided upon how the pit stop scenario unfolded.

Verstappen was the first of the big hitters to roll the dice on lap 24, swapping his worn set of red-banded soft Pirelli tyres for a set of mediums with Hamilton looming large in his mirrors. And it was a slow stop by Red Bull’s standards, a slow 4.2s stop handing the advantage to the Mercedes man.

Hamilton stayed out four laps longer, a cleaner 2.7s stop putting the Englishman out just behind his rival but with much fresher tyres to take him to the end.

It now looked to be advantage Mercedes, the Silver Arrow duo setting about hunting down their prey. By half distance, Hamilton had whittled the gap down to just half a second. But with the Mercedes in dirty air and with overtaking opportunities few and far between, he pitted again on lap 43 going for a bold undercut and a scrubbed set of mediums and with clear track ahead of him.

Verstappen still had a 22 second gap with 22 laps of the race remaining. And with Hamilton catching at a second a lap, it was all set for a grandstand finish.

So it transpired, Hamilton reeling in his prey and completing the job around the outside at Turn 1 six laps from the finish. Still, the race was on for that extra point for the fastest lap. And with a healthy lead over Bottas, Verstappen was able to emerge ahead on a fresh set of tyres and grab that additional bonus.

“It had always been the plan all weekend, to make sure we had two mediums to do a two stop even though a one stop potentially looks better I know from experience here that a one stop is very very hard to pull off,” added Hamilton. “And as soon as I knew we had the pace we had, I could get past him.

“I was about to before I pitted right at the end and I was really conflicted… Do I come in or do I ignore the call and stay out and obviously I did what the team asked and that’s a great trust between us and a remarkable job between everyone in the team through and through. What a day.”

At the end of what can be described as a tactical, if not dramatic, Spanish Grand Prix it means that Hamilton extends his lead at the top of the drivers’ standings to 14 points over Verstappen.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.