Each of them led. They fought hard enough to make one another pant, like boxers, pushing one another to the very edge. They even collided at one stage. And afterwards, they laughed.
Lewis Hamilton laughed loudest and longest, and Sebastian Vettel admitted that on the podium his first emotion was annoyance that he had lost.
But for 66 laps under broiling sun in Montmelo this afternoon, the two biggest adversaries for the 2017 world championship went at it, mano a mano. And they didn’t stop until it was over, an hour thirty five minutes and fifty-six point four-nine-seven seconds later. Or, in Vettel’s case, fifty-nine point nine-eight-seven seconds.
A lot of the Spanish GP was actually quite dull, because the Circuit e Catalunya is one of those tracks that does as little as it can to encourage overtaking, but the bits that were good were very good.
It started well, this one, with polesitter Hamilton and Vettel screaming down to Turn 1 almost side by side, but as Hamilton encountered wheelspin, Vettel pulled a trick with his clutch and got the grip he needed to go into the lead. Cue a motor race.
“If I had taken the lead at the start,” Hamilton admitted,” I think we would have seen a less interesting race. But as it was, when I was behind him he was so hard to follow, because he was so damn fast!”
For which, read that Mercedes’ updates worked a little bit better than Ferraris' here.
Behind them, in Turn 1, there was mayhem. Russian GP winner Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes almost got past Hamilton before tucking back in behind him, but as he rode a wheel up the inside kerb his car was edged into contact with fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen, to his left. The Ferrari was in turn nudged into Max Verstappen as he was trying to go around the outside in his Red Bull.
They were immediately eliminated, but Bottas survived. For the moment. Meanwhile, in another incident Felipe Massa collided with Fernando Alonso, who had made a slow start after qualifying his unloved McLaren Honda a spectacular seventh. Both continued, to lowly finishes.
Vettel continued to lead until pitting to switch to a fresh set of soft Pirelli tyres. Hamilton then took over and led until the 21st lap, when he pitted for medium tyres, as Mercedes had decided to gamble on strategy in the hope of being able to run softer, faster tyres in the later stages when Vettel would be on the slower mediums.
That put Bottas into the lead and Mercedes tactically left him there so he could try to contain Vettel as Hamilton recovered from his stop. But Vettel was able to overtake Bottas on the 25th lap, and Hamilton also closed in and moved ahead of his team-mate. Now he had to wait and see whether he could maintain pace with Vettel despite the disparity in their tyre choices.
But then fate intervened. The face of the race changed as Stoffel Vandoorne in the second McLaren collided with Massa in Turn 1 on the 34th lap, bringing out a virtual safety car. Mercedes snatched the chance to bring Hamilton in for soft tyres, and because of the VSC he was able to rejoin right alongside Vettel as the track went green and they went into the 38th lap. Hamilton was on the left and got alongside the Ferrari as they turned in, but Vettel moved over until they collided momentarily. Vettel kept his lead, in the style of Michael Schumacher, and Hamilton was forced to drop back. They laughed about it later.
“I gave you space, otherwise we would have touched,” Hamilton told Vettel. “It was close, it was cool.”
“I did too,” Vettel replied, looking just as exhausted.
“Not really,” Hamilton riposted, but he did it with laughter, both of them still adrenaline high on their duel.
But at the time, Hamilton used the word ‘dangerous’ over his radio. Soon afterwards, Mercedes lost their second car when Bottas’ engine failed, leaving Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo a very distant third in what was supposed to be a heavily updated car.
But after shadowing the Ferrari for six more laps, he used a better exit to the last corner that leads on to the long pit straight, and his DRS system, to sweep by Vettel into the lead. Though Ferrari considered a Plan C to make a third stop, for fresh soft tyres in order to stage a counter-attack, it was too late. Hamilton stayed clear to win by 3.4s, and that was that. Six points separate them as they head to Monaco.
“It was just the rawest fight I can remember having for some time, which I loved,” Hamilton said, still breathing heavily. “This is what the sport needs to be every single race, and this is why I race and what got me into racing. To have those close battles with him, a four-time champion, is awesome. This is one of the hardest races, to keep up with him. He drove fantastically well, so it's such a privilege to race against him.
“In the end we came out so close together, which was very, very close into Turn 1. In the heat of the moment it's difficult to know from the outside, I felt like I ran out of road but was alongside. But it was how racing should be. I love it, I wouldn't change it for the world.”
The final stint was all about how well Hamilton pushed while conserving his less durable tyres, and denying Vettel a chance to fight back. In the end, he succeeded brilliantly.
“The team did a great job with the strategy,“ he said, though he had repeatedly queried the strategy the team had adopted as they assured him the pendulum would swing back in his favour.
“The last stint, when they told me the tyres had to do 25 laps, I didn't think it would work. I thought at the end of the stint he would come back at me. But we managed it.”
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