The battle between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel reached a fever pitch in today’s Spanish Grand Prix, as a mix of differing tire strategies, contact and hard work saw Hamilton emerge with his second win of the 2017 Formula 1 season after a thrilling battle.
With Vettel in second, Hamilton has now closed what was a 13-point gap entering the race (86-73) to just six (104-98) with a crucial victory heading to the Monaco Grand Prix later this month.
Behind the top two, Daniel Ricciardo scored his first podium of the season for Red Bull, albeit quite a ways behind, with Sahara Force India having a banner day in fourth and fifth with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, who continue their points scoring streaks.
Both of the top two drivers turned in star drives, but the midfield battle was fascinating to monitor as some of the heavy hitters fell out of contention early.
On the start, Vettel got the launch passed Hamilton, but last year’s first and second place finishers, Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen, were done on the first lap.
Contact between the two of them – plus Valtteri Bottas – saw the first two with significant damage to their wheels and suspension and out of the race, and thus unable to repeat their encore performance of a year ago.
Bottas got a flying start and got to the inside of Raikkonen, who was sandwiched in the middle and sustained left front damage. Verstappen, on the outside, collided with Raikkonen and sustained right front damage while Bottas emerged unscathed.
A young Ferrari fan was sad and captured on camera, and Raikkonen looked stranded before commencing the walk back to the paddock, although that would later have a happy ending.
In the chaos, Fernando Alonso also ran wide after starting seventh at the exit of Turn 2 and Felipe Massa also had smoke emanating from his Williams, as the two former Ferrari teammates collided on exit, with Massa suffering damage.
Vettel had a two-plus second lead over Hamilton at the end of the first lap with Bottas third, Ricciardo fourth and the pair of Force Indias up to fifth and sixth as Perez and Ocon capitalized for position. Nico Hulkenberg (Renault), Kevin Magnussen (Haas), Carlos Sainz Jr. (Toro Rosso) and Romain Grosjean (Haas) moved into the top 10 with Alonso dropping down to 11th, and Pascal Wehrlein up to 12th in the first Sauber.
Both first lap incidents were reviewed by the stewards with no further action taken. Bottas’ role in the three-wide incident was also later reviewed, also with no further action taken.
With all drivers except Jolyon Palmer, Daniil Kvyat and Stoffel Vandoorne starting on Pirelli’s soft tires – these three started on mediums – tire management the rest of the way was going to be key to success, and came down to pit stops as to whether Hamilton could complete the undercut to overcome Vettel’s sustained two-plus second lead.
But it was Vettel that blinked first for Ferrari, pitting on Lap 14 and continuing on a second set of softs, which set him up for a three-stop strategy. That promoted Hamilton to the lead over Bottas but Vettel got Ricciardo for third on Lap 16, and on a fresher set of tires could begin his charge back from 20-plus seconds back.
Around the same time, a cracking scrap between Magnussen and Sainz on track continued elsewhere as they nearly collided – twice – while leaving the pit lane. That incident was placed under review by the stewards.
Hamilton finally responded on Lap 22, but switched onto mediums, which meant he was good to go to the regulations but would be on the slower tires while Vettel could continue to run further on the softs. Hamilton emerged about eight seconds behind Vettel at this time, while Bottas moved into the lead having not yet stopped.
Bottas was then left to defend against Vettel, who needed to get past the Finn. Bottas locked up his tires on Lap 24 which nearly left an opening for Vettel, but the German was unable to get through… briefly.
Vettel finally made it past Bottas, almost on the grass, into Turn 1 for the lead on Lap 26. But he’d lost a fair bit of time behind Bottas in the process, which allowed Hamilton to close up on the medium tires. Hamilton passed Bottas for second place shortly after Vettel got Bottas.
Bottas finally pitted and switched onto mediums himself, so he and Hamilton were on the same tires at the same time. A bit further back, behind the Force Indias in fifth and sixth, Sauber got Pascal Wehrlein up to seventh as ace strategist Ruth Buscombe looked to run Wehrlein on a one-stop strategy.
At the halfway mark of Lap 33, Vettel led Hamilton by six-plus seconds with Bottas 20-plus seconds back in third, Ricciardo, the two Force Indias and Ocon.
The race’s complexion changed following a Virtual Safety Car period a lap later as Vandoorne’s tough rookie season continued, as he contacted Massa’s Williams going into Turn 1.
Hamilton and Vettel’s battle raged after their pit stops. Hamilton went from mediums to softs on Lap 37 but Vettel countered a lap later with a move the other way from softs to mediums.
The two collided at Turns 1 and 2, with Hamilton to Vettel’s outside, and going off track as a result. Vettel continued in the lead but on the slower tires with Hamilton then stuck in behind.
On Lap 39, Bottas’ day ended with smoke billowing from the rear of his Mercedes, which meant each of the top two teams only had one car left in the fight. It was a fiery exit for him and the first retirement of his career with Mercedes.
By Lap 44, Hamilton made the pass for the lead on Vettel into Turn 1, going to the outside of Vettel into the corner and then working to streak away.
Wehrlein’s dream drive to seventh had him just ahead of Sainz, Magnussen and Kvyat on Lap 47 and poised for big points, but the Sauber driver was later issued a five-second time penalty for not adhering to the pit entry bollard correctly. It then meant he’d need to turn it on for the final 20 laps to ensure he could deliver enough of a gap to get more points.
The race’s final act turned to whether either Vettel or Hamilton would make another pit stop for fresher tires, but the window passed when Vettel would opt not to pit for new softs.
As the laps ticked closer to the conclusion, Hamilton’s softs started to fade while Vettel was able to close a bit more on the mediums.
One final act turned with just two laps to go. Magnussen was ninth and poised for his second points finish of the year, but lost it owing to a late puncture. It was a heartbreaking end to a thrilling race from his cockpit. He pitted for fresh tires, and in consolation, Grosjean moved up to 10th place as a result.
Hamilton was able to hold on for the victory from Vettel, with Ricciardo in third quite a ways back. The Force India twins were next to complete the top five.
On the road, Hulkenberg, Wehrlein, Sainz, Kvyat and Grosjean completed the top 10. Wehrlein dropped back one position to eighth as a result of that five-second time penalty.
Magnussen dropped behind Marcus Ericsson and Alonso, who at least finished but dropped back five spots from his starting position, and Massa fell to an unlucky 14th place. Jolyon Palmer and Lance Stroll completed the runners.
Bottas, Vandoorne, Verstappen and Raikkonen were the four retirements.
Provisional results are below.