Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton hunted down “sitting duck” Max Verstappen to win the Spanish Grand Prix for a record-equalling fifth year in a row on Sunday and go 14 points clear at the top of the standings.
The Briton’s 98th victory, from his 100th pole, was his third in four races and he and Mercedes delivered a strategic masterclass after Red Bull’s Verstappen, who finished second, seized the lead at the first corner.
The breakthrough came when Hamilton made a second pitstop with 23 laps to go, returning on fresh tyres but some 22 seconds behind his Dutch rival.
Hamilton rapidly closed the gap, defying computer predictions that he would take until the last lap, to sweep past his helpless rival with six to spare in a re-run of his epic chase of Verstappen at the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix.
“Such a close start… and then after that just hunting,” said Hamilton, the first to succeed from pole this season and now a six-times winner at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya.
“It was a long way to come back from 20 odd seconds back but it was a good gamble, a really great strategy by the team.”
Verstappen, who pitted for fresh tyres after he had lost the lead to secure a bonus point for fastest lap, said he could see it coming.
“There was not much we could have done. They went for another stop and then I knew it was over because I was already struggling with the tyres and you could see that every lap he was getting closer and closer,” he said.
“Bit of a sitting duck… we were just clearly lacking pace. I tried everything I could.”
Hamilton’s Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas finished third in a repeat of the podium from last weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix.
Mercedes continued a remarkable winning run at the Spanish circuit, triumphant in every race there since 2013. They stretched their lead over Red Bull in the constructors’ standings to 29 points.
Hamilton now has 94 points to Verstappen’s 80 and Bottas now third with 47.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc finished fourth with Mexican Sergio Perez fifth for Red Bull.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo was sixth for McLaren and Spaniard Carlos Sainz seventh in his first home appearance for Ferrari.
McLaren’s Lando Norris was eighth with Esteban Ocon ninth for Alpine and Pierre Gasly taking the final point for Red Bull-owned AlphaTauri.
Some 1,000 spectators were allowed to watch from the grandstands after the previous two races in Italy and Portugal were held behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Verstappen made the better start, muscling through at the first corner with the two drivers somehow avoiding contact, and then opening up a lead while Bottas slipped from third to fourth behind Leclerc.
The safety car was deployed on lap eight after AlphaTauri’s Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda stopped on the outside of turn 10, but Verstappen gave Hamilton no chance at the re-start.
Hamilton did go back in front when Verstappen pitted on lap 24, a 4.2 second stop with the rear left slow to go on, and stayed out a further five laps before also coming in.
The Briton was right up behind the Red Bull again by lap 35 but, with overtaking always difficult at the Spanish circuit, pitted again on lap 43 of 66.
“It’s like Hungary all over again,” said Verstappen’s race engineer over the radio as the strategic implications sank in with Red Bull having to make the tyres last or pit and lose track position.
“I don’t see how we are going to make it to the end,” said Verstappen four laps later, with the gap already down to 15 seconds.
Hamilton still had to get past team mate Bottas, second on the road, and the Finn did not make it particularly easy despite being told ‘Don’t hold Lewis up’ over the team radio.