Lewis Hamilton has 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 it 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. 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 Vettel was fastest out of the blocks here.
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 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 over, too.
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 discarded 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 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.”
Would Hamilton be able to make his tyres last? The answer was yes as he crossed the line to claim his second victory of the season, 3.4 seconds clear of Vettel.
Sergio Perez finished fourth with his Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon an impressive fifth. Alonso was only 12th while British driver Jolyon Palmer finished 16th and last.