George Russell beat Charles Leclerc in a dramatic ending to the Virtual Spanish Grand Prix as a time penalty cost the Ferrari driver on the final lap.
Williams driver Russell took pole position from Esteban Gutierrez but it was the Mexican who took the lead on the opening lap as Russell dropped back to fifth behind Leclerc, Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi. Leclerc soon took the lead and Albon moved into second place but the Red Bull driver then opted for an unorthodox two-stop strategy, pitting early for medium tires in the hope he would pull out a big enough lead two be able to make a later stop.
However, Leclerc and Russell were running second and third to Albon on the hard tires and didn’t let the Red Bull get away. Albon — who had won the previous race last weekend — had to opt for hard tires on his second stop and was unable to close a 15-second deficit as it became a two-horse race.
Russell pulled out a stunning lap as Leclerc struggled with lag mid-way through the race to gain 1.5 seconds and put pressure on the Ferrari, taking the lead using DRS with nine of the 33 laps remaining. However Leclerc soon fought back with a stunning move around the outside of Turn 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and showed Russell it wasn’t going to be an easy run to the flag.
Although Russell was soon back ahead using DRS again, it had become Leclerc’s race to lose as the Williams driver was handed a three-second time penalty for corner cutting at the final chicane, something Leclerc had started to copy. But just as it looked like the penalty would cost Russell a maiden win in the Virtual GP series, Leclerc then got the same penalty starting the final lap of the race to throw away victory.
“I was pretty ecstatic, I’ve missed that winning feeling!” Russell said. “When I got past Charles and I knew I had that three-second penalty I was pretty furious but when the radio message came in at the end and I heard he had a three-second penalty, I was almost wetting my pants!
“I was angry (to get a penalty), I was disappointed. I knew I had the pace around this track. I didn’t make the best start. I went into Turn 1 and it’s very easy in these cars to get spun off and I just thought ‘I can’t afford to get spun around at Turn 1.’ Charles did a good move around the outside and I could have been much more aggressive but I thought I’d try and come back later in the race.
“I was back down in P5 and I thought, ‘Oh not again, I’m going to have bloody Charles taking all the glory once again!’ but I was pleased when I came back through. But to be fair to Charles I think he had some in the middle of the race and lost a lot of time so that helped me out, and a good little battle we had at some points.”
Although the top two laughed about the race together afterwards, Leclerc admitted he was frustrated to pick up his penalty so late after pushing to find more time.
“I was very disappointed!” Leclerc said. “The only thing is the track limits at the last corner was a bit easier than on other parts of the track, so I was trying to cut a little bit more on every lap and I think everyone did that. George had the penalty in the same way I did. We were trying to go a bit more on the inside all the time and at one point I went too much and already had a warning, so it was a three-second penalty.
“Such a shame, the second to last lap, but it’s like this. George was extremely quick anyway and I knew that from the start. I was very happy with my pace in the mid-race but then when he showed his real pace towards the end he was just too quick for me.”
Gutierrez had the pace on a one-stop strategy to keep Albon at bay for third but couldn’t quite get within three seconds of Leclerc to gain another position, while Albon himself ended with the fastest lap in P4. Latifi need up fifth ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi — who led for a spell after starting on mediums — and Anthony Davidson who moved to Mercedes for this weekend in place of Stoffel Vandoorne.
Pietro Fittipaldi also two-stopped — running soft-medium-medium — to finish eighth, while Antonio Fuoco recovered from a spin to take ninth ahead of Renault youngster Max Fewtrell.
After successfully taking part in qualifying, Lando Norris suffered more connection issues on the F1 2019 game and retired early in the race, but there was a strong showing from Thibaut Courtois (12th for Alfa Romeo), while fellow international soccer player Sergio Aguero was a solid 15th on his first appearance for Red Bull, just 1.4s behind Nicholas Hamilton, who was the only McLaren to finish.