With seven FIA Formula 1 World Championship titles, 99 wins and 200 podiums between them since their F1 debuts in 2007, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are by far the most prolific drivers of the ‘post-Schumacher’ era of grand prix racing.
The two were marked as stars of the future well before F1, though, when they were rivals in European Formula 3. The two had wheel-to-wheel battles as junior drivers but fast forward to 2017, they are battling for the F1 title with little to separate them either on the timing screens or out on track.
The 66-lap Spanish Grand Prix around the 16-turn, 4.655km Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya was the scene of a terrific duel between Hamilton and Vettel in which the Mercedes AMG F1 driver bested the Ferrari man.
The race was however, close enough for Mercedes to resort to some quick thinking and cunning use of Valtteri Bottas to give Hamilton the edge over Vettel.
VETTEL STEALS THE START
After the German leapt past pole-sitter Hamilton at the start, he was able to maintain a gap of around two to 2.5 seconds before the first of his two tyre stops on lap 14. Mercedes kept Hamilton out for another eight laps in order to give the tyres he would use on his second stop less work to do as compared to Vettel.
It still could have counted for nothing as Vettel still had impressive pace but that is where the struggling Bottas – unable to keep up with the leaders – came into play. Keeping him out for even longer than Hamilton, the Finn kept Vettel behind him for as long as he could before the German sold him a dummy on lap 24 heading into the first corner to finally get past.
However, by Vettel’s estimation, he had lost around eight seconds to the chasing Hamilton in doing so.
Another turning point in the race came on lap 34 when McLaren-Honda’s Stoffel Vandoorne turned in on the Williams-Mercedes of Felipe Massa going into the right-handed first corner despite the Brazilian being clearly alongside the Belgian.
A virtual safety car was brought out briefly during which Mercedes were able to switch from the mandatory medium compound Pirelli tyre to the soft compound whereas Ferrari, which had Vettel out on the soft tyre until then, waited until the race resumed to fit his SF70-H with medium compound tyres on lap 38.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
This led to the German losing his lead over Hamilton as the two banged wheels going into the first corner and the Briton being forced off the track as he tried to pass Vettel on the outside.
Hamilton was, however, on the faster tyre and five laps later he stormed past Vettel to take the lead before being able to nurse his tyres home for the remainder of the 23 laps. Vettel tried to put some pressure on him, hoping that his relatively harder set of tyres would allow him to attack late in the race but Hamilton judged it perfectly to take his 55th career win.
There was little to celebrate for the other drivers in both Mercedes or Ferrari as Bottas ultimately retired with what looked like a blown engine and Raikkonen retired on the opening lap itself after clashing with Red Bull-Tag Heuer’s (Renault) Max Verstappen.
It was left for the other Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo to come home in a lonely third place while Force India-Mercedes took a solid points haul with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon finishing fourth and fifth.
Nico Hulkenberg was sixth for Renault and Carlos Sainz of Toro Rosso-Renault, Pascal Wehrlein of Sauber-Ferrari, Daniil Kvyat of Toro Rosso-Renault, and Romain Grosjean of Haas F1 rounded out the top ten.
A notable finish outside the points-scoring positions was Fernando Alonso whose McLaren-Honda allowed him to finish a race for the first time this year in 12th place, after the Spaniard had a poor start that saw him miss out on scoring points after qualifying seventh.
The F1 world championship continues with the Monaco Grand Prix on 25-27 May. Of course, that will also be the Indy 500 weekend where Alonso will be competing for McLaren-Honda-Andretti.