Red Bull’s Max Verstappen delivered another commanding performance en route to victory in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, leading home the Mercedes machines of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, with team mate Sergio Perez fourth.
Verstappen controlled the race from lights out to the chequered flag to chalk up his fifth win of the 2023 season, and his third triumph at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, while further increasing his lead in the championship standings.
Mercedes enjoyed a much-improved display to take a double podium, Hamilton surviving a first-lap clash with McLaren’s Lando Norris and overcoming an early battle with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, and Russell working his way up from 12th on the grid with a series of overtakes.
Perez put in a solid recovery drive – after starting 11th – to take fourth, just missing out on the final podium spot to Russell after a charging final stint, with Sainz completing the top five, having dropped away from the sharp end as the race developed.
Fernando Alonso was unable to add another podium to his, and Aston Martin’s, tally with a quiet run to seventh on home soil, but alongside team mate Lance Stroll’s sixth place, the green machines nonetheless bagged a solid haul of points.
After his podium heroics in Monaco, Esteban Ocon had to settle for eighth position this time out, while a five-second time penalty given to Yuki Tsunoda – for forcing Zhou Guanyu off the track – meant the Alfa Romeo driver and the other Alpine of Pierre Gasly rounded out the points.
Charles Leclerc also gained a spot from Tsunoda’s sanction but was unable to secure a point after wholesale changes to his Ferrari post-qualifying – and his first Q1 exit since the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix – saw him start from the pit lane.
Tsunoda slotted in ahead of McLaren’s Oscar Piastri and AlphaTauri team mate Nyck de Vries, who were the first of the drivers a lap down on Verstappen, followed by Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg and the lead Williams of Alex Albon.
Norris was forced to pit for a new front wing after his incident with Hamilton at the start and had a lonely race to 17th, with the other Haas, Alfa Romeo and Williams machines of Kevin Magnussen, Valtteri Bottas and Logan Sargeant bringing up the rear.
Verstappen’s win means Red Bull continue their unbeaten start to the campaign, with the reigning double world champion – who also earned the fastest lap bonus – moving 53 points clear of nearest rival Perez in the race for the drivers’ title.
After a dramatic qualifying hour, post-session stewards’ investigations resulted in Gasly being hit with two three-place grid penalties for impeding both Verstappen and Sainz, sending the Frenchman from a high-flying fourth to 10th and promoting a handful of rivals.
Another twist came on Sunday morning when Ferrari confirmed that they had replaced the entire rear-end of Leclerc’s car under parc ferme conditions following his shock Q1 exit, meaning he was moved from P19 to the pit lane, where Sargeant joined him after suspension set-up and brake cooling adjustments.
As the race start approached – a two-stop encounter expected providing the gathering clouds did not yield any more rain – the various slick starting tyres were revealed, with Verstappen, Perez and Sargeant the only drivers going for mediums, Leclerc taking hards and the rest of the field taking softs.
When the lights went out, Verstappen made a strong enough getaway to cut in front of Sainz and then defend from the home hero into Turn 1, where Hamilton made a move on Norris before the pair banged wheels on the exit, forcing the latter into the pits for a new front wing.
Stroll took advantage of the drama to work his way up to third, with Hamilton slotting into fourth from Ocon, Alonso, the fast-starting Russell, whose trip along the Turn 1/2 escape road was noted by the stewards, Hulkenberg, Zhou and the recovering Perez.
As it had been all weekend, Verstappen’s pace was rapid from the outset, immediately lapping more than half a second quicker than Sainz to surge into the distance, while team mate Perez continued his damage limitation exercise with passes on Hulkenberg and Zhou.
Mercedes were also on the move, with Russell jumping Alonso for P6, just before Hamilton cleared Stroll to return to the podium positions, as news came in from the stewards that Russell would face no further action for his Lap 1 off-track excursion.
Bottas, Hulkenberg, Zhou and De Vries were early stoppers for fresh tyres, with plenty of intrigue over the strategies in play and whether any drivers would go for an aggressive three-stop approach compared to the more conventional two-stop plan.
Russell’s rise continued on Lap 11 as he slipped past Ocon into Turn 1, meaning he had already gained seven positions from his P12 grid slot – a number only bettered by Leclerc who had climbed from the pit lane to 11th, and the edge of the points.
A fifth of the way into the race, Verstappen’s advantage over Sainz was up to six seconds, with Hamilton one-and-a-half seconds further back, as Russell set his sights on fourth-placed Stroll and bringing himself into contention for a podium.
Ocon was the first of the front-runners to pit on Lap 14, emerging just ahead of an almighty midfield scrap between Hulkenberg, Tsunoda and Zhou, with Stroll following him in for a new set of tyres a lap later to defend from the undercut.
Just as Hamilton appeared to be lining up a move, Sainz dived into the pits to swap his soft tyres for mediums, prompting a question from the Ferrari man over the radio, before the seven-time world champion reported that his rubber was still feeling “really good”.
Meanwhile, Leclerc completed just 17 laps on the hard tyre before making his first stop, moving over to a set of softs and coming back out just in front of Norris, who was the penultimate runner – ahead of only Albon – after his opening lap contact with Hamilton.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Russell, Alonso, Perez and Gasly were the top six runners – and the drivers yet to stop – as the lap counter hit 19 out of 66, with Sainz heading the train of cars that had pitted and the wait going on to see how the various strategies would converge.
Alonso came in on Lap 20, rejoining in 10th, as the two Ferraris engaged in battle with Gasly’s Alpine in quick succession – Sainz getting ahead just before Gasly pitted, and Leclerc making a move just after that slightly slow stop was completed, only to lose it moments later.
At this point, Russell asked the Mercedes pit wall if a one-stop strategy could work, to which his engineer said it was “not impossible”, with the soft tyres bolted to his and team mate Hamilton’s cars appearing to have plenty of life still left in them.
Verstappen and Perez were also ploughing on with their starting mediums – the Dutchman’s lead over Hamilton sitting at around 11 seconds, and Perez running around half a minute away from his team mate after a midfield start.
But on Lap 26, the call was made for Hamilton to pit, swapping from softs to mediums and rejoining some three seconds behind Sainz, with Russell doing the same one tour later, coming back out between Stroll and Ocon.
A lap after that, Red Bull and Verstappen decided enough was enough as they pitted to move from mediums to hards, his advantage such that he emerged some five seconds clear of Perez and held onto the lead.
Perez followed his team mate’s switch from mediums to hards on Lap 28, slotting back into ninth, just as Hamilton used DRS down the main straight to breeze past Sainz for second place – the upgraded W14 showing plenty of raw pace.
Just as the dust had settled on those stops, Russell reported some drops of rain as clouds continued to cover the circuit, but his fears were short-lived when he followed up on that message a few laps later with the suspicion that it was likely only sweat.
Perez used the pace of his Red Bull, and fresh tyres, to make a sequence of passes as the race reached its halfway mark, clearing Alonso – who was struggling to make an impression on home soil – Tsunoda and Ocon, and getting back up to sixth.
After his rain concerns, Russell used DRS to pass Sainz on the run to Turn 1 and put his Mercedes into the podium positions, with team mate Hamilton eight seconds up the road and Verstappen 14 seconds further ahead. “Solid work!” Russell’s engineer commented, to which Russell quipped: “Just solid?!”
As Verstappen headed onto Lap 41, via a wide moment at Turn 5, he was one of seven drivers to have stopped just once, along with Hamilton, Russell, Sainz, Perez, Alonso and Leclerc, with the rest of the field having made two visits to the pit lane.
One lap later, Ferrari completed a double stack as Sainz and Leclerc stopped for new hards, setting them up for a final 22-lap run to the chequered flag – while it remained to be seen what the remainder of the front-running group would do.
“Not amazing. Let’s see a few more laps,” Verstappen said of his tyres as he stretched out his second stint, before another wide moment at Turn 5 that led to another deleted lap time and meant he had no more warnings to use up.
Alonso and Russell were the next drivers to stop for a second time, leaving Verstappen, Hamilton and Perez as the only one-stoppers up to this point, as Russell promptly lit up the timing screens in a bid to put pressure on Perez.
On Lap 51, Hamilton and Perez both pitted for new tyres, with Hamilton returning to the track in second and Perez dropping behind Sainz and Perez, before leader Verstappen opted to do the same on the following tour – all three moving to softs.
Elsewhere, former team mates Alonso and Ocon were involved in a close call along the pit straight as the Alpine driver forced the new Aston Martin man towards the grass – the pair only narrowly avoiding contact as Alonso moved into P7 behind Stroll.
With fresh tyres fitted, Perez clocked a new fastest lap in his quest for a podium, meaning Russell had gone from the hunter to the hunted and looked set to have his Mercedes’ mirrors full of a Red Bull during the run to the finish.
As the race entered its final 10 laps, Verstappen was given a black-and-white flag for a third trip over the white lines at Turn 10, with his race engineer jumping on the radio to remind him that “no risks are required” given his lead over Hamilton.
But that was the only drama Verstappen faced before taking the chequered flag, ultimately finishing 24 seconds clear of Hamilton, with Russell eight seconds further back and managing to keep Perez at bay for the final place on the podium.
Sainz was a lonely fifth in his Ferrari, with the Aston Martins of Stroll and Alonso taking sixth and seventh, Ocon crossing the line in eighth, Tsunoda following in ninth and Zhou coming home 10th for what initially counted as the final point.
However, a run-in between Tsunoda and Zhou at Turn 1 in the closing laps, which saw Zhou forced wide, led to a stewards’ investigation and resulted in Tsunoda being dropped from his P9 finish to 12th, promoting Gasly into the points.
Leclerc just missed out on a reward after his pit lane start, rising to P11 and getting to within a second of Gasly at the finish, as Tsunoda’s day ended with a frustrating 12th, ahead of lapped finishers Piastri and De Vries.
Hulkenberg, Norris and Magnussen all completed three stops en route to P15, P17 and P18 respectively, with Albon winding up 16th, Bottas 19th and Sargeant 20th, as all drivers made it to the chequered flag.
The next stop on the 2023 F1 calendar will be Montreal’s Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve for the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, which takes place from June 16-18.