Lewis Hamilton moved to within six points of Sebastian Vettel after beating his championship rival in a titanic tussle at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Pole-sitter Hamilton lost the lead to Vettel at the start only to regain the lead from the Ferrari driver in the final stages of a compelling race to seal his second victory of the year.
Hamilton punched the air in delight as he crossed the line while Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo completed the podium places after Valtteri Bottas retired with an engine problem.
Hamilton had vowed to take inspiration from Bottas’ lightning quick start in Russia a fortnight ago, but it was Vettel who was fastest out of the blocks today.
Despite starting on the dirtier side of the track, Vettel drew alongside Hamilton on the long run down to turn one before hugging the inside line to take the lead.
Hamilton was second but there was chaos behind as Bottas bumped into Kimi Raikkonen, who, in turn, ran into the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. While Bottas survived the incident, Raikkonen’s front-left suspension was in tatters, and although Verstappen limped back to the pits his race was also over.
Fernando Alonso, starting in seventh after a miraculous performance in qualifying, dropped four places on the opening lap after he was edged off the track by his former Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa at turn two.
Up front, Vettel was 2.2 seconds clear of Hamilton at the end of the an incident-fuelled opening lap, and that is how it remained as the two championship protagonists traded times.
Ferrari were the first to blink as Vettel came in for his first stop at the end of lap 14. Vettel took on the soft tyre, the quickest, but less durable of the three compounds available here this weekend.
It was expected that Hamilton would pit on the following lap, but the British driver was told to stay out as Mercedes switched up their strategy. “We are creating opportunities later in the race,” Pete Bonnington, Hamilton’s engineer told the Briton from the Mercedes pit wall.
Hamilton eventually stopped at the end of lap 21, taking on the more durable medium rubber, and exited the pit lane nearly eight seconds adrift of Vettel.
The German, however, had greater cause for concern in the form of the other Mercedes with Bottas, yet to stop, holding him up.
But on lap 25 Vettel made his move. He threw Bottas a dummy before taking to the grass on the 200mph run down to turn one and edging his way past for the lead of the race once more.
It was the pass of a champion and his Ferrari mechanics celebrated in their garage.
Stoffel Vandoorne then crashed into Felipe Massa at turn one. The McLaren driver’s race was instantly over and, with his car beached in the gravel, the virtual safety car was deployed.
Mercedes sensed an opportunity and hauled Hamilton into the pit lane for his second and final stop. On went the soft tyre and Hamilton was released.
Ferrari were somewhat caught on the hop, and when they reacted to Hamilton’s stop they put the slower medium compound on Vettel’s car.
As the German raced away from the pit lane he emerged wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton. The British driver attempted to pass his rival around the outside but Vettel held firm and Hamilton ran off the track.
“That was dangerous,” a breathless Hamilton said over the team radio. “I was more than half alongside him, and he pushed me wide.” The stewards noted the incident, but correctly took no action.
Hamilton was not about to give up, however, and after gaining once more on the Ferrari he seized his opportunity on the 44th lap. And with the combination of a tow and DRS he sailed around the outside of Vettel at turn one to reclaim the lead he had lost at the start. “I had no chance,” said Vettel over the radio. “He was like a train.”
The question remained- would Hamilton be able to make his tyres last? The answer was yes and he crossed the line to claim his second victory of the season, 3.4 seconds clear of Vettel.
“That is how racing should be,” said Hamilton after recording the 55th victory of his career. “That is as close as it could be. Sebastian was incredibly close and incredibly fast, but the team did a great job with the strategy.”
Reflecting on his wheel-to-wheel battle with Vettel, Hamilton added: “In the heat of the moment it is difficult to know from the outside view what it is like. I felt like I ran out of road.
Vettel added: “I had a really good start and I managed to stay ahead, then settled into a nice rhythm and everything was fine.
“He came out of the pits and I was a bit surprised that it was so close. I tried to brake as late as possible. I don’t know if we touched but I managed to stay ahead.
“I was doing everything I could to stay in front, but as soon as I was alone he just flew past me down the straight, which was a shame. Well done to him. He drove a good race and we did everything we could.”