Lewis Hamilton scored his 98th F1 victory in the Spanish GP and crept ever closer to the century mark after earning his 100th pole earlier in the week. This is his third win in the fourth race of the 2021 season.
It was not as simple as leading flag to flag, however. Hamilton was involved in a race-long strategy battle with runner-up Max Verstappen.
Verstappen’s Red Bull took the lead on the opening corner of the first lap and led most of the race on a one-stop strategy.
Employing two stops — the second that left him 22 seconds behind the leader with 22 laps remaining — Hamilton benefitted from having fresher tires.
After getting passed for the lead by Hamilton with five laps remaining (after the No. 44 McLaren made up a 22-second gap to first in 16 laps), Verstappen stopped a second time in the closing laps so he could secure the fastest lap in the race.
“It was actually a really good day,” Hamilton said after winning his sixth Spanish GP and fifth consecutive. “I learned a lot about Max today and perhaps more than all the other races probably put together.
“Obviously I was following relatively, closely and I learned a lot about his car and learned a lot about how he uses it. So that was a good race in that respect.”
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The duo extended its advantage over the field by combining to win all four races this season. It’s an early indication this would be a two-driver championship race just as the season has been principally a battle between the McLaren and Red Bull contenders.
“I am beginning to love this battle we are having,” Hamilton said. “Red Bull has started incredibly strong. With Max, they have a championship-winning car. We have to bring our A-game every week.”
He was within a second of Verstappen when his team made the call to pit for a second time on Lap 43.
Verstappen said he realized he was a ‘sitting duck’ once Hamilton affixed the fresh rubber.
“In a way, I could see it coming, you know?” Verstappen said. “Already at the end [of the first stint] with the softs, [Lewis] was faster. Then when we put on the mediums, he clearly had a lot more pace, he could just stay within one second.
“There was not much more we could have done. They went for another stop, then I knew it was over. I was already struggling with the tires. You could see every lap he was just getting closer and closer. So a bit of a sitting duck.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas finished 11 second behind in third.
Just off the podium, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc finished fourth with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez in fifth.
With three victories, Hamilton expands his championship points lead to 14 over Verstappen, who won the only race that Hamilton has not claimed in 2021.
“It shows that we are not where we want to be. But compared to last year, it has been a big step,” Verstappen said. “We just need a faster car. It is very simple.”
At least the Red Bull driver could take solace in being faster on the start as he ran wheel to wheel with Hamilton through the first turn.
“As I went into Turn 1, I just gave Max as much space as I could,” Hamilton said. “This is a race, not a sprint. I always have my mind on the long game. As soon as I got past Turn 1, I switched into a different mode.”