MONTMELÓ, Spain (AP) — At least Max Verstappen made Mercedes work for the win.
Verstappen got a great jump on Lewis Hamilton at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix to take an early lead over the seven-time world champion. But Mercedes stopped a Red Bull runaway by using strategy and fresh tires to push Hamilton to his 98th career victory Sunday.
It was the third win in four races to start the season for Hamilton, who extended his lead to 14 points over Verstappen in a championship fight already off to an intense start. Verstappen won the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix last month.
“I am beginning to love this battle we are having,” Hamilton said. “Red Bull has started incredibly strong. With Max, they have a championship-winning car. We have to bring our A-game every week.”
Mercedes outwitted Red Bull by using a two-stop strategy that helped Hamilton make it look easy: Verstappen led 54 of 66 laps and Hamilton still beat him by 15.8 seconds.
Hamilton used a fresh set of tires to overcome a 22-second gap and pass Verstappen with six laps remaining. He tied Michael Schumacher’s mark of six victories at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, including five straight.
Verstappen was disheartened after leading 54 laps. But he said he didn't have the pace that Hamilton had in the Mercedes once Mercedes decided it would go with a two-stop strategy. Red Bull chose to make only one pit stop.
“Of course we wanted to win but I cannot feel too disappointed as I did everything I could out there and maximized the opportunities,” Verstappen said. "Even if we had looked at another strategy and done a two stop and pitted before them, we wouldn’t have made the time up as they were just faster than us.
“It was just a day where we lacked a bit of pace and second was the best result possible.”
Hamilton started from the pole for the 100th time in his career but Verstappen pounced headed into the very first corner. He threw his Red Bull inside of the Mercedes and Hamilton had to back out to avoid contact and yield the lead to his rival.
“As I went into turn one, I just gave Max as much space as I could. This is a race, not a sprint. I always have my mind on the long game,” Hamilton said. “As soon as I got past turn one, I switched into a different mode.”
Verstappen was in control of the race, but Hamilton never stopped stalking the Dutchman. Red Bull was committed to its strategy and so Mercedes did the opposite.
When Verstappen pitted, Hamilton stayed on track.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff had said before the race he expected to make just one pit stop, but as Verstappen led Hamilton around the circuit, Wolff must have changed his mind.
Verstappen made the swap from softer tires for the more durable mediums while Hamilton waited several laps before he made his stop.
When Hamilton got back on track he radioed: “How far have I got to catch up?”
“Twenty-two seconds. We’ve done it before,” was the reply.
Mercedes was right. Verstappen was unable to put up a fight when Hamilton caught and passed him on the outside of a turn.
“I was hunting," Hamilton said. "It was a long way to come back from, 20-odd seconds back. But it was a good gamble,” Hamilton said.
Valtteri Bottas finished third to give Mercedes two drivers on the podium. But the Finn was again disappointed and at one point in the race was ordered by Mercedes not to slow Hamilton as his teammate was racing for the lead.
Bottas said after he didn't immediately slow for Hamilton.
“I was doing my own race as well,” Bottas said. "They told me not to hold him up too much, but like I say, I was doing my own race and I’m not here to let people by, I’m here to race, so that’s how it goes.”
Charles Leclerc finished fourth for Ferrari while Sergio Pérez came from eighth to finish fifth in the second Red Bull.
Daniel Ricciardo was sixth for McLaren in his strongest race of the season. Carlos Sainz was seventh in the other Ferrari, followed by McLaren’s Lando Norris – the first time Norris has finished outside the top five this season. Esteban Ocon in an Alpine and Pierre Gasly for Alpha Tauri took the final two points-paying positions.
Health restrictions limited spectators for Sunday’s race to 1,000 local members of the circuit. There were 90,000 in attendance in 2019.
“There are a thousand here, but we know there are hundreds of thousands watching from home and we hope we can have them back soon,” said Fernando Alonso, who saluted those in attendance after the Spanish driver was honored.
Alonso finished a disappointing 17th in his Alpine.
The safety car went out once on lap seven when Yuki Tsunoda’s Alpha Tauri came to a stop on the edge of the track and had to be lifted off by a crane. Tsunoda was critical of his car on Saturday and later apologized for his remarks.
Next up: The Monaco GP on May 23.
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