In the end, there was nothing like the amount of overtaking that had been predicted around a circuit on which it has rarely been possible, but it barely mattered as Sebastian Vettel found himself hounded all the way by an heroic Lewis Hamilton. After 190 miles, just six-tenths of a second separated them as the reigning champion scored his fourth victory in five races this season for Red Bull.
Nobody doubts that the Red Bull RB7 is the best car in the field, and good though it is, Hamilton's McLaren MP4-26 did not deserve to push Vettel so hard. "I just couldn't ever get close enough, and never had an opportunity to overtake," Hamilton admitted – and that was with a KERS system that worked better than Vettel's (which developed an intermittent problem), and a DRS rear wing which cuts drag for the following car and, on some circuits, facilitates passing moves.
"I was quite impressed with the job we were able to do considering that their car is quite a bit faster than ours," Hamilton continued. "Our race pace really has improved since the last race, but he [Vettel] was incredible, massively quick, in the high-speed Turn Three and again in Turn Nine and the final corner, 16, where his extra downforce was so clear to me."
The partisan crowd cheered itself hoarse at the start when local hero Fernando Alonso burst through from fourth place on the grid to be alongside Vettel and then dive down the inside of his pole-sitting team-mate Mark Webber going into the first corner. It was the prelude to a disappointing afternoon for the Australian who had been focusing on keeping Vettel at bay and did not spot the Ferrari in time.
"I thought I'd made a pretty good start," Vettel said, "and I didn't understand where Fernando came from. We'd just set off and halfway down to the first corner he was already alongside. After that I couldn't get close enough to get the DRS advantage, but eventually we got him with our second pit stop."
Alonso kept the lead through his first of four pit stops on the 10th lap, and again on the 19th, but thereafter the race was between Vettel and Hamilton, who stopped initially on laps nine and 11 and then 18 and 23 respectively.
As they raced ahead, Alonso kept an increasingly frustrated Webber at bay, and Jenson Button worked his way back from a terrible start that dropped him initially from fifth on the grid to 10th at the end of the opening lap.
Alonso was third when he pitted for the third time on the 29th lap, and again he held off Webber, but the Spaniard soon blistered a set of hard-compound Pirelli tyres and gradually dropped away as he had to make his final set last from the 39th lap to the end. He finished a lapped fifth.
Vettel and Hamilton, meanwhile, traded blows until the finish, pushing each other all the way. The gap between them fluctuated from as much as 2.4sec on the 51st to 0.5 on the 58th, but Hamilton just could not overtake. Vettel worked the traffic well and maintained his small but crucial advantage after a super-cool drive.
"Lewis was very strong and I knew it would be very, very close," he said. "It felt a bit like China, with my tyres going away, and I was praying for the same thing to happen to him. He was sitting for some time on the rev limiter all down the straight, always there when I looked in the mirrors, and it was hard to know whether to defend or not.
"Over the last few laps I just got enough to make it stick. Sometimes my KERS was on, sometimes not, so I was playing with the button. It was quite a relief when you cross the line and there's the chequered flag. We made it."
Hamilton said: "I caught up three times but our raw speed was not fast enough. But I'm thoroughly happy with the job we did; considering the circumstances it was quite an achievement."
So he was a valiant second, and McLaren picked up the third podium place too after Button switched to a three-stop strategy after his dreadful start and later made the most of his final set of soft-compound tyres to jump Alonso and Webber.
"The start was an absolute disaster," he admitted. "It didn't feel too bad, but I was on the outside for Turn One and three people came past, and the same thing happened in Turn Three. After that to begin with it was very difficult to overtake, but we used a fantastic strategy and I was able to get on the podium.
"It was great fun to pass Mark and Fernando within the same lap, especially as they had been fighting for 40 laps, and a strategy that wasn't right three weeks ago was perfect here. I really felt like I raced today and I'm happy with the result, but it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if I'd made a good start."
After the race the stewards investigated Hamilton, Button and Webber for possible yellow flag infringements, but no penalties were applied.
FIA Formula One Spanish Grand Prix; Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain; Final positions (66 laps):
1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1hr 39min 03.301sec;
2 Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:39:03.931;
3 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:39:38.998;
4 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:39:51.267;
5 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari at 1 lap;
6 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP at 1 lap;
7 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP at 1 lap;
8 N Heidfeld (Ger) Renault at 1 lap;
9 Sergio Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari at 1 lap;
10 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari at 1 lap;
11 V Petrov (Rus) Renault at 1 lap; 12 P di Resta (GB) Force India at 1 lap; 13 A Sutil (Ger) Force India at 1 lap; 14 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 lap; 15 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams at 1 lap; 16 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 2 laps; 17 R Barrichello (Br) Williams at 2 laps; 18 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 at 2 laps; 19 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 3 laps; 20 J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin Racing at 4 laps; 21 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 at 5 laps. Not Classified: 22 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 58 laps completed; 23 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 48 laps completed; 24 V Liuzzi (It) HRT-F1 28 laps completed. Standings: Drivers: 1 S Vettel 118pts; 2 L Hamilton 77; 3 M Webber 67; 4 J Button 61; 5 F Alonso 51; 6 N Rosberg 26; 7 N Heidfeld 25; 8 F Massa 24; 9 V Petrov 21; 10 M Schumacher GP 14; 11 K Kobayashi 9; 12 S Buemi 6; 13 A Sutil 2; 14 S Perez 2; 15 P di Resta 2; 16 J Alguersuari 0; 17 R Barrichello 0; 18 J Trulli 0; 19 J d'Ambrosio 0; 20 H Kovalainen 0; 21 P Maldonado 0; 22 N Karthikeyan 0; 23 T Glock 0; 24 V Liuzzi 0.Manufacturers: 1 Red Bull 185pts; 2 McLaren 138; 3 Ferrari 75; 4 Renault 46; 5 Mercedes GP 40; 6 Sauber-Ferrari 11; 7 Scuderia Toro Rosso 6; 8 Force India 4; 9 Williams 0; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 Virgin Racing 0; 12 HRT-F1 0.