Resurgent Hamilton fends off Vettel to clinch win in Spain

Resurgent Hamilton fends off Vettel to clinch win in Spain

Lewis Hamilton caught and passed Sebastian Vettel to win a thrilling Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona and reduce his championship deficit to six points after five rounds.

After racing each other by proxy for the first four grands prix, Hamilton and Vettel finally went wheel-to-wheel for the lead in Spain and the resulting race did not disappoint. The race swung back and forth between the two, with Vettel beating Hamilton off the line before Mercedes brought Hamilton back into the race on an alternate strategy.

Hamilton still had to do his passing on the track, however, and did so on lap 44 with a move around the outside of Turn 1. Six laps earlier the pair had banged wheels as Vettel emerged from his first pit stop alongside Hamilton, but both drivers were happy to joke about the incident after the chequered flag. It was also a race in which Mercedes and Ferrari both lost a car to retirement, allowing Daniel Ricciardo to take third for Red Bull despite finishing 72 seconds off the pace of the front two.

Force India picked up a healthy 18 points in fourth and fifth ahead of Nico Hulkenberg in the Renault, who scored his third consecutive points finish in a row. Pascal Wehrlein finished seventh on the road for Sauber but dropped to eighth with a five second penalty for driving the wrong side of a bollard on the pit lane entrance. He still secured the Swiss team's first points of the season with an impressive one-stop strategy, but dropped to eighth in the final classification behind Carlos Sainz. Daniil Kvyat and Romain Grosjean took the last points on offer in ninth and tenth.

At the start, Hamilton had a slow getaway from pole position and was forced to follow Vettel through the first corner while Valtteri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen banged wheels behind. Raikkonen was attempting to go around the outside of Bottas for third place, but as he turned into the corner he received a tap from Bottas on the right rear and speared into Verstappen to his left. Both Raikkonen and Verstappen suffered race-ending suspension damage but the carnage continued behind as Felipe Massa collided with Fernando Alonso, forcing the McLaren into the gravel between Turns 2 and 3. Both cars were able to continue, but with Alonso dropping to 11th and Massa pitting for repairs, any hope of points was lost.

Vettel built up a 2.2s lead on the first lap, which he maintained until lap 14 when Hamilton upped his pace in anticipation of the first pit stops. A lap later Vettel responded by pitting from the lead for a second set of soft compound tyres, forcing Mercedes to start thinking laterally about how to regain the lead. After six in slowly degrading soft tyres, Hamilton switched to the slower medium compound tyres on lap 21 and returned to the track 9.2s behind Vettel. The net loss of the first pit stops was clear to see on the timing screens, but Mercedes was playing the long game.

Bottas, who had been running third since the start, inherited the lead and was well placed to interfere with Vettel's strategy. For four laps the Ferrari remained bottled up behind the No. 77 Mercedes and only passed on lap 25 when Vettel sold Bottas a dummy on the run down to Turn 1, dipping two wheels onto the grass before taking the lead. Bottas had essentially sacrificed his race for teammate Hamilton but 15 laps later it came to nothing as his engine -- now on its fifth race of the season after being drafted back in following a problem on Saturday -- expired. But in the laps behind Bottas, Vettel saw his lead cut from 9.2s to 3.7s -- a significant chunk of time lost in such a close race.

Once the Ferrari was back in clear air it was by far the faster car again, with Vettel using his soft tyres to extend his lead over Hamilton on the slower mediums. On lap 31, however, the tide started to turn and Vettel's tyre degradation meant Hamilton could stabilise the gap at 6.1s. A further opportunity emerged for Mercedes on lap 34 when Stoffel Vandoorne turned in on Felipe Massa as the Williams attempted to pass at Turn 1 and broke his McLaren's suspension. The stricken car brought about a Virtual Safety Car, slowing the speed of the drivers on track and offering less of a time penalty for a pit stop relative to rivals. It was a tad early for Hamilton in an ideal world as he had to switch to the soft tyres for the final stint and would have struggled to complete 32 laps on just one set, so Mercedes waited until the very end of the VSC period on lap 37 before making its move. That meant Hamilton only gained a partial advantage over Vettel, but the late call prevented Ferrari mirroring Mercedes and instead Vettel had to make his final pit stop under normal racing conditions a lap later.

It was a key turning point in the race and, after holding a six second lead just a few laps earlier, Vettel exited the pits level with Hamilton as the Mercedes charged down to Turn 1. The pair went side by side into the corner, touching wheels and forcing Hamilton off the track on the exit. Hamilton radioed his team to label Vettel as "dangerous", but with the two cars on different tyre compounds the race was far from over. Vettel managed to block the inside line into Turn 1 for six more laps, but Hamilton's tyre advantage ultimately proved too difficult to defend against on lap 44. Having nailed the exit of the final corner on the previous lap, Hamilton cruised up behind the Ferrari in his highest engine mode and, with the DRS open, was able to pass around the outside into Turn 1. Hamilton was worried his aging soft tyres would cause him issues in the final few laps, but as he crossed the line he held a 3.5s lead over Vettel in second and had successfully cut the gap to just six points in the championship.

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