BARCELONA, Spain — Max Verstappen won an action-packed Spanish Grand Prix in which his championship rival Charles Leclerc retired, Red Bull employed team orders ease Verstappen’s path to victory and George Russell secured his second podium of the season for Mercedes.
Verstappen recovered from a mistake on lap nine — which saw him run through the gravel at Turn 4 and lose position to Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez — and secured the win on lap 49 when Perez was ordered to move over and let him pass for the lead. The controversial decision from the pit wall was labelled “very unfair” by Perez over the team radio, but he still obeyed the order when his teammate appeared in his mirrors and lined up a pass.
Verstappen’s victory means he holds a six point lead over Leclerc heading to the Monaco Grand Prix after the Ferrari driver was forced to retire from a comfortable lead on lap 27 with a power unit issue. Verstappen finished the race 17 seconds clear of Perez once the second Red Bull car made an additional pit stop to secure the fastest lap towards the end of the race. Russell finished third, a further 10 seconds behind and one place ahead of Carlos Sainz, who recovered to fourth after a mistake at Turn 4 on lap seven dropped him from fifth place to 11th.
Lewis Hamilton took a remarkable fifth place finish after a collision on the first lap with Kevin Magnussen punctured his front left tyre and dropped him to the back of the field. Hamilton initially recovered to fourth place, but lost a place back to Sainz after his Mercedes team told him to back off in fear of the car failing to make the finish.
Fernando Alonso crossed the line a lap down in ninth ahead of Yuki Tsunoda, who took the final point on offer in 10th.
The race got underway with Leclerc holding off Verstappen into the first corner as Russell moved up from fourth on the grid to third. Sainz dropped from third to fifth and Hamilton suffered his puncture after Magnussen attempted to pass him around the outside at Turn 4 for sixth place and the two made contact.
Sainz was the next driver to end up in the gravel at Turn 4 after losing control of his Ferrari on entry to the corner on lap seven. Verstappen made a very similar mistake two laps later, which his engineer blamed on a gust of wind, dropping him from second place to fourth, behind Perez and Russell who were battling for position.
Red Bull switched its cars a couple of laps later to allow Verstappen, who was on a different tyre strategy to Perez, to attack Russell, but the world champion spent 18 excruciating laps unable to pass the Mercedes due to a faulty Drag Reduction System (DRS). The DRS is designed to help drivers overtake by reducing aerodynamic drag for the chasing car on the straights, and without that advantage Verstappen struggled to make a pass stick on Russell.
The battle between the two drivers peaked on lap 24 when Verstappen launched his car up the inside at Turn 1, only for Russell to fight back in Turns 2, 3 and 4. With Perez pitting and arriving on the tail of the battle a few laps later, Red Bull decided to pull Verstappen into the pits on lap 29 for his own pit stop. Perez went on to pass Russell for the lead on lap 31 with the help of his fully functioning DRS.
As the pit stops panned out, it became clear that Perez was in a position to go the end of the race on a two-stop strategy while Verstappen was going to need three pit stops. But by making his final pit stop, Verstappen dropped behind his teammate, creating an awkward situation for the Red Bull team in the final stint of the race.
With Verstappen closing on Perez lap after lap, Red Bull radioed the Mexican to inform him he would be expected to give the position to his teammate. Verstappen’s tyre advantage may have helped him secure the lead regardless, but the team orders meant Perez didn’t put up a fight and the race was decided on the pit wall rather than on the track.
Team orders are allowed in Formula One, but are rarely used so early in a season when both drivers are still in contention for a title and both fighting for a win. However, with Ferrari appearing to have the fastest car all weekend, Red Bull clearly wanted to capitalise on Leclerc’s power unit failure and bank maximum points with minimum risk.
The next round of the championship will take place in Leclerc’s home country of Monaco next weekend.
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