A surprise pitstop rewarded Lewis Hamilton with his 98th career victory in the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya
Lewis Hamilton won the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix for a record-equalling fifth year in a row after his Mercedes team’s brilliant tyre strategy set the Brit up for a late charge that saw him catch and pass race leader and title rival Max Verstappen with six laps remaining.
Hamilton seemed to have missed his opportunity at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya when he remained on worn tyres for four laps longer than Red Bull’s Verstappen.
But Mercedes sprung a surprise on Red Bull,
stopping Hamilton for a second time with 24 laps remaining. He rejoined with Verstappen, then 22-seconds ahead.
The faultless Brit delivered, catching and then passing the Dutchman with six laps remaining to extend his lead over Verstappen to 14 points. Valtteri Bottas finished third for Mercedes ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull.
“It was a long way to come back from but a good gamble and a really great strategy by the team,” said Hamilton. What a day.”
It’s become something of a cliché to say Lewis Hamilton pulled out a qualifying lap when it mattered most. Still, in Barcelona, he did it again to claim his 100th pole position of his incredible Formula One career and his 74th pole for the Silver Arrows.
The seven-time world champion beat Red Bull rival Max Verstappen by 0.036 seconds, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas lined up third.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc continued to impress, qualifying fourth with teammate Carlos Sainz in sixth.
The field took the start line without drama. Hamilton looked as though he would get into Turn 1 first, but Verstappen had other intentions. Bolder and braver on the brakes, the Dutchman launched his Red Bull down the inside of Hamilton’s Mercedes.
The Brit turned in for the right-hander and came within millimetres of making contact with Verstappen before conceding the position. The Dutchman led by 1.5s after the first lap. Bottas dropped to fourth behind Leclerc as Perez squeezed his Red Bull up two places.
The safety car was deployed on Lap 9 after Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri stopped in Turn 10. It was a bitter blow to Red Bull and Verstappen as their advantage seemed now gone. However, when racing resumed two laps later, Verstappen caught Hamilton napping to retain the lead.
By Lap 21, Verstappen and Hamilton were in a class by themselves, continuing to pull away but dropping their speed slightly as they preserved their tyres. Meanwhile, Bottas was now struggling with his rears.
Verstappen was the first to blink, stopping for tyres on Lap 24. However, the Red Bull crew were slow in mounting Verstappen’s rear-left tyre. At 4.2s, Red Bull appeared to hand the initiative to Hamilton and Mercedes.
Hamilton waited until Lap 28 for his stop. He was stationary for just 2.7s. He rejoined over 5s behind but on tyres that were five laps fresher.
However, Verstappen, on fresh rubber and lapping faster than his rival, cancelled any advantage the world champion might have gained. But Hamilton was on a charge, and within a matter of laps, he was back on the Dutchman’s gearbox.
Catching someone is one thing at Barcelona, but passing them is another matter. Over the next 14 laps, Hamilton had DRS activated on every lap but couldn’t get close enough. Verstappen was always fast enough in the right places.
Yet, Verstappen, now having to nurse his rubber to the checkers, started to feel the pressure.
“I don’t see how we are going to make it to the end,” he called out with 18 laps remaining.
Then, on Lap 42, Mercedes sprung a surprise by pitting Hamilton for a second tyre change with 24 laps remaining. How would Red Bull react? With Hamilton now able to fly, indeed, Red Bull would have to pit Verstappen immediately.
But Verstappen while stayed out; Hamilton radioed his team. “How far have I got to catch up?” asked Hamilton.
“Currently 22 seconds,” came the team’s reply. We have done it before,” referring to the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix when Hamilton gambled on a second pit stop and passed Verstappen for the lead with just three laps to run.
Encouraged, Hamilton was determined to make it happen again. Verstappen became a sitting duck – if he pitted, Hamilton would take the lead. Red Bull’s only alternative was for Verstappen to stay in front for as long as possible. Red Bull told Max that Hamilton would catch him on the final lap.
Verstappen, now having to nurse his rubber to the flag, was starting to feel the pressure.
“I don’t see how we are going to make it to the end,” he said with 18 laps remaining.
Verstappen had one little chance. Bottas, out of sync with Hamilton and running in second, was ordered out of his teammate’s way.
“Lewis is fighting for a win, we are on a different strategy to him,” the Finn was told on Lap 50.
A lap later, Bottas was urged: “Don’t hold Lewis up.”
Bottas usually obeys team orders to the letter, but this time he did not make it easy. Hamilton finally got past at the left- handed Turn 10 but indeed lost time in his pursuit of Verstappen.
Hamilton then picked up his pace. On Lap 52, Verstappen was 10 seconds ahead – by the start of Lap 59, the difference was just 1.5 seconds. Starting Lap 60, Hamilton was within attack range as they sailed down the pit straight.
Hamilton tucked in behind Verstappen at over 200mph before jinking to the left of his helpless rival. In a flash, he was
around the outside to capture the 98th win of his exceptional career.
Verstappen pitted for fresh tyres on Lap 61 and rejoined second, claiming a bonus point for the race’s fastest lap.
An energized Daniel Ricciardo was sixth for McLaren, with team-mate Lando Norris eighth. Carlos Sainz’ Ferrari split the McLaren drivers by finishing seventh ahead of Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly.
“In a way I could see it coming,” Verstappen said later. “When they went for another stop I knew it was over. I tried everything I could. It shows we are not where we want to be.”
That’s now three victories in four races for Hamilton. The blazing speed Red Bull displayed in Bahrain testing has disappeared. They desperately need to get their house in order for a significant result in Monaco in two weeks.