What the Spanish Grand Prix lacked in tension, surprise and drama compared to this season’s first four Grands Prix, was made up for with Catalan consequences.
For starters, the once-again rock-solid Hamilton pulled 17 points clear of Vettel. As for the Ferrari ace, despite his having led 63% of all laps this season before taking the start, he descended to fourth from a seemingly stable second place due to a surprise second stop under a VSC for tyres. Vettel’s stop became disastrously lengthened, allowing Red Bull’s Max Verstappen through to claim his first podium of 2018.
The Dutchman drove a perfect final 20 laps to hold third ahead of Vettel after damaging his front wing courtesy of Lance Stroll. As the field prepared to resume racing following slow laps under the Virtual Safety Car period, Stroll’s lapped Williams suddenly slowed giving Verstappen nowhere to go. His Red Bull rammed Stroll’s right rear, taking off a majority of the RB14’s left front wing endplates. Verstappen immediately used his steering wheel’s “tools” to adjust for the loss of downforce and then promptly pulled away from Vettel.
Behind the top three, the remaining field seemed locked-in-line as was the case in the F1’s Melbourne opener; the slippery track reduced strategy options, making passing once again tricky if not impossible. While the race looked to have a 70% chance of rain, Barcelona instead stayed dry and produced the “Train in Spain”.
At the start, third place starter Vettel used second qualifier Valtteri Bottas’ slipstream to slice ahead of the Finn, making it Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas and Verstappen cleanly through Turn 1. Behind them was soon chaos as Romain Grosjean’s Haas jumped ahead of Carlos Sainz Jr and Fernando Alonso after both drivers lost grip in Turn 2. The Frenchman then surged up behind team-mate Kevin Magnussen on the entry to Turn 3, but his car lost rear traction and began spinning back across the track as he held his foot flat on the accelerator. His rear tyres lit up, producing a smoke screen that blinded and then caught out Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault and Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso. The trio was out on the spot.
The Safety car was called out for the clean-up and racing resumed on Lap 7. Hamilton once again leapt ahead of the pack, pulling out a seven-second lead until Vettel stopped for fresh medium tyres on Lap 16. Bottas picked up his pace during Vettel’s stop, and as the German emerged from the pits, he fell in line behind the Finn. Bottas would hand the place back to Vettel during his stop. Kimi Raikkonen retired from fourth place on Lap 25, the victim of a problem with his second engine of the weekend.
On Lap 40, Esteban Ocon’s Force India fell out and triggered a virtual Safety car period, and Ferrari brought Vettel in for a surprise second set of tyres. The slow pitstop allowed both Bottas and Verstappen to slip past. Ferrari’s action was not as much a gamble as a necessity; Vettel said later Ferrari had no option but to make the pitstop as his SF71 was chewing through its rubber faster than the Mercedes; he would finish fourth.
Daniel Ricciardo faded to a lonely fifth in the second Red Bull. A spin at the VSC restart dropped him away from Verstappen, though he responded with the fastest lap near the end. Kevin Magnussen produced a faultless drive to claim sixth and best-of-the-midfield honours for Haas, while Carlos Sainz Jr survived a fuel problem in the closing stages to finish seventh.
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso was eighth, ahead of Sergio Perez’s Force India. Both Alonso and Perez overtook Sauber Charles Leclerc near the end, but the rookie still earned his second points finish in a row with 10th.