The meteoric rise of Max Verstappen from karting to Formula 1 winner in the space of just over two years is nothing short of extraordinary, as in his 24th Grand Prix, and first with Red Bull, he became the youngest driver, and first from The Netherlands, to secure victory in the sport. This was a race which began with the drama of the two title rivals colliding before opening up into a nail-biting strategy game as two different approaches played out in tantalising fashion.
SILVER ARROWS IN THE DUST
Hamilton arrived at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya trailing team-mate Nico Rosberg by 43 points in the standings and was all at sea during Friday’s practice sessions, unhappy with a car which was also suffering from an issue. Once rectified, Hamilton adopted Rosberg’s set-up direction on Saturday morning but still lagged behind his team-mate, before the tables were turned in Q2. Hamilton delivered a lap six-tenths of a second faster than Rosberg but in Q3 his initial hopes were dashed amid a plume of tyre smoke into Turn 10. Hamilton regrouped and flew to top spot, posting a lap which Rosberg could not match – it was “three from three,” Hamilton claimed, citing his inability to register a qualifying time in China and Russia due to mechanical problems.
Hamilton and Rosberg both made encouraging starts but Rosberg sagely used the slipstream and jinked to the outside, possessing the confidence to loop around his team-mate at Turn 1, securing the inside line into Turn 2 in the process. From here, it was Rosberg’s race to lose, with track position vital at the Spanish venue. However, Rosberg was in the wrong engine mode and was “derating,” which was indicated to Hamilton by the red light flashing from the rear of the Mercedes.
“When you stop on the grid, there’s only one mode which is the race mode, Nico was in that mode the whole formation lap so I can only assume he forgot to change it I guess on the grid,” said Hamilton during his post-race media gathering. “But when you’re in the launch mode it’s the same mode, but in Turn 3 he disengaged launch mode as I did but I went to race mode and he went I think to another one.”
Hamilton was therefore able to carry far greater speed through Turn 3, the stewards note later confirmed it to be a 17km/h difference, and sensed his opportunity. Rosberg realised his engine modes were incorrect and sought to address the situation, before defending his position into Turn 4. Hamilton ducked to the inside just as Rosberg opted for the same approach and the ill-fated timings of both moves left Hamilton on the grass, effectively a passenger.
Hamilton lost control of his Mercedes and clipped the rear of Rosberg’s car, sending both into the gravel trap and retirement. Stewards correctly deemed the clash a racing incident, with the speed differential meaning Rosberg had a right to defend while Hamilton’s attempt was reasonable. It was merely a case of circumstances slotting exactly into place with two aggressive drivers, after two years of tension, not willing to give an inch.
Once the initial furore had died down both drivers provided their views to the assembled media, with Hamilton apologising to the team for the missed opportunity, but, astutely, not taking blame.
“I was gaining on him, I had decent pace, where he positioned the car there was a car width to the right of the racing line and I had to decide whether to go left, which is the racing line, or to the right,” said Hamilton.
"The inside line is always the one you go for, it's a much bigger gap so I went for it, I got there and I had part of my wheel and wing alongside within the white line but that diminished pretty quickly.
"I did what I could to avoid an incident but I was on the grass, and it all happened pretty quickly."
Rosberg was pricklier during his media gathering, and more visibly irritated by the incident, taking a couple of journalists to task over legitimate questions.
“I was really ecstatic about the first corner move,” he said. "From then on I was sure it was my race to win. Through Turn 3 I noticed that I was down on engine power. I saw Lewis closing in, and as soon as I could I closed the door. It was a strong move to make sure he understood that there was not going to be space there. I’m surprised, as he went for it anyway. Then we were in the sandtrap.”
Rosberg was pressed further.
“It was to move over as early as possible, in a very clear, strong manoeuvre, to make it clear to Lewis that I will be covering the inside, which is the normal thing for a racing driver to do.”
Neither driver took the blame, but neither driver opted to point fingers at the other, though the inference was just as telling.
RICCIARDO LEADS THE TRAIN
As Mercedes exited stage left, Red Bull was presented with a golden opportunity to end the win drought which extended back to Belgium 2014. Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen had both, to their surprise, been able to overhaul Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel over one lap to line up on the second row of the grid. Ricciardo led Verstappen, who had a so-so getaway but vanquished Vettel with a stupendous move on the entry to Turn 3, ensuring a Red Bull 1-2 for the first stint of the race.
Vettel had also been outfoxed by the fast-starting Carlos Sainz Jr. and began to lose some ground to the Red Bull drivers, with slow-starting Räikkönen in a similar predicament. Vettel was six seconds adrift of Ricciardo by the time he passed the plucky Sainz Jr, but began to close the gap, as Verstappen remained within sight of his team-mate up front. Raikkonen, during this stage, made few in roads.
Ricciardo stopped first on lap 11, followed one lap later by Verstappen and Räikkönen, and three laps later by Vettel as all four switched from Softs to Mediums. Vettel began to charge down the Red Bull drivers, the gap to Ricciardo falling from 4.8 seconds to 3.7, 3.4, 2.6 in successive laps. When Vettel got to within a second of Verstappen, the Dutchman began to close in on his own team-mate, the gaps falling from 1.2, 1.1, 1.0, 0.7 in consecutive laps. The fourth driver in the train, Räikkönen, was merely 5.6s behind Ricciardo and in serious contention for overall honours. When Red Bull called in Ricciardo for another set of Softs on lap 28 it clearly signalled its intentions.
TWO-STOPS COME INTO PLAY
Ricciardo was therefore on a three-stop strategy, which Red Bull at the time believed to be the preferable option, and Ricciardo was given that approach as the lead driver. Verstappen inherited the lead of the race while Vettel stopped for another set of Softs a lap later, signposting Ferrari’s three-stop strategy in the process.
Verstappen stayed out on the Medium tyres, his advantage over Räikkönen shrinking by the lap, the Finn within two seconds when the Red Bull driver darted into the pits on lap 34. When his Red Bull mechanics bolted on another set of Mediums it was clear a two-stop strategy was the goal, though his tyres would need to last 31 laps.
Räikkönen followed suit one lap later, meaning there were four drivers in contention for victory running in two separate groups. Ricciardo was chased by Vettel but Ferrari pitted the German after a surprisingly short stint on the Soft tyres, meaning that his Mediums were only three laps fresher than Verstappen’s, effectively quashing his realistic hopes of victory. Ricciardo stayed out six laps longer on Soft tyres, but the extra mileage on the rubber meant he emerged seven seconds behind Vettel. If he was to win, he’d need to pass three cars.
Verstappen thus led an encroaching Räikkönen, who moved into DRS range on lap 47, seemingly possessing the opportunity to deny the youngster a famous victory. However, Verstappen’s trump card was his superior traction exiting the final chicane; Räikkönen was unable to enter the main straight with as much pace, robbing him of the opportunity into Turn 1. For lap after lap the situation was repeated: Räikkönen would close in on Verstappen across the first two sectors but lose out during the final couple of corners, most agonisingly exiting the chicane.
Räikkönen needed to be within four-tenths of Verstappen crossing the line in order to have a chance but the closest he came was 0.651s; for 17 successive laps he was within DRS range crossing the line but his prospects were scuppered by Ferrari’s inability to match Red Bull’s traction at the final chicane. Verstappen, though, had to play his part, ensuring that he did not put a wheel wrong in order to provide Räikkönen with the merest whiff of a chance.
This was Verstappen’s first chance to win a Formula 1 race, with one of the all-time greats behind him, and having only driven the RB12 for the first time 48 hours previously. The stars may have aligned perfectly for Verstappen, but he grabbed his opportunity in a calculated manner which defines the greats. It was history in the making, as Verstappen crossed the line to become the youngest winner – no other driver has even started a race at the age Verstappen is now.
As Verstappen kept Räikkönen at bay up front, Ricciardo closed in on Vettel on fresher Medium tyres; if he hoped to win the race he would need to usurp his former team-mate pretty quickly, but the nature of the circuit made life difficult. Ricciardo tried a move into Turn 1, which angered Vettel, but the Ferrari remained ahead.
As the laps wore on so did Ricciardo’s chances of victory, and even the opportunity of a podium was gone when he suffered a puncture on the penultimate lap. Such was the advantage of the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers that Ricciardo managed to limp to the pits for a fresh set of Softs and emerge ahead of fifth-placed Valtteri Bottas. Ricciardo was understandably miffed at how he dropped from first to fourth across the course of the race and queried the approach, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
The day, though, belonged to Verstappen.
“Of course I didn’t expect to win; after the Mercedes pair crashed then you’re targeting a podium, but in the end to come out on top, it’s incredible,” he said.
“To hear the Dutch national anthem for the first time in Formula One, I have to think about my dad for sure and I heard he was crying, so yeah it’s unbelievable. He invested a lot of time in me and this achievement is also because of him.
“I wasn’t nervous during the race, I was just trying to focus and drive the best I could. We focused a lot on keeping the tyres alive because at my last stop I still had to do 32 laps until the end, but it worked out well! With five laps to the end I saw Kimi was dropping off a bit, he tried a few times and of course it kills your tyres and from there I just like ‘okay, focus on the tyres now and bring it home’. I will for sure remember this and at the moment it’s just a great feeling. It’s amazing, I have no words for it.”