Max Verstappen has taken the lead of the Formula 1 world championship by six points with victory at the Spanish Grand Prix after Charles Leclerc retired with a power unit problem.
Polesitter Leclerc was cruising with a comfortable 13-second lead when an “unidentified PU issue” forced him to limp back to the pits for his first DNF since last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix.
But it was George Russell, not Verstappen, who inherited the lead when Leclerc abandoned the field.
The Briton had made a cracking start to run third early in the race when on lap 9 a gust of wind blew Verstappen into the gravel at Turn 4, promoting the Mercedes to second.
It wasn’t Verstappen’s only problem. The non-opening DRS problem that prevented him from setting his final Q3 lap on Saturday afternoon returned intermittently despite some repair work earlier on Sunday.
It prevented the Dutchman from capitalizing on the super-effective drag reduction system in the headwind down the front straight and facilitated some blockbuster defensive work from Russell in pursuit of what suddenly became the battle for the lead.
Verstappen was incensed by his car’s unreliability, blasting the team for being unable to “even make the f***ing DRS work” as he drove on the clattered precariously over the curbs in pursuit of the silver car ahead.
He caught it on lap 24 and dived down Russell’s inside at Turn 1, but Russell, having been covering Verstappen’s advances for several laps, held on around the Red Bull driver’s outside to resume the apex at Turn 2 and get back onto the racing line for Turn 3. Verstappen tucked in behind him but suffered a wash of oversteer mid corner, costing him momentum.
More frustrated radio exchanges ensued, and the stalemate brought Sergio Perez into the fray on fresher tires, at which point the Mexican asked for Verstappen to let him through to continue his own race.
The team wasn’t keen, and after keeping them in line for a little longer decided to change tack, switching Verstappen from a two-stop strategy to three stops to exploit the RB18’s pace advantage.
A stop on lap 28 dropped him to fourth, but a flat-out stint on a used set of softs got him back into the lead when Russell and the Perez made their second stops. With the clear air he was quick enough to pit and rejoin the race ahead of the Mercedes at his third and final stop.
Perez, who had blasted past Russell with his working DRS in their middle stint, was the only car left ahead of Verstappen, but a radio message ensured the Mexican was moved out of the way without a fight – “That’s very unfair, but okay,” Perez said, recalling the team’s earlier unwillingness to ease his way in the race – to ensure Verstappen could take the flag unchallenged.
“A difficult beginning but a good end,” Verstappen said. “I tried to stay focused. Of course it’s not nice when stuff like that (DRS problems) happens.
“We managed to do a strategy to get ahead again and do our own race and eventually win the race.”
Perez took the flag second, but was unhappy to have had his race compromised for his teammate, believing he could have won the grand prix.
“I think it was close,” he said. “But in the end it’s a great team result, and I’m happy for that.”
Russell finished third as the lead Mercedes driver and was, for the first time this season, more or less on the frontrunning pace, even if he couldn’t live with Verstappen when the Dutchman was in clear air.
“I’d love to say [Mercedes is back], but today was very tough,” Russell said. “I gave everything I could.
“I’m so proud to be standing here. The guys have worked so hard. To everyone at Brackley and Brixworth: thank you.”
Carlos Sainz finished fourth as cold consolation for Ferrari. The Spaniard was blown into the gravel similarly to Verstappen on lap 6, dropping him to 11th, but a strong middle stint on two sets of medium tires hauled him back through the pack.
He had been pipped for the place by Lewis Hamilton with six laps to run, but the Mercedes driver was instructed to aggressively lift and coast to avoid a power unit failure on the final two laps, enabling the Ferrari driver to retake the place.
Hamilton finished an excellent fifth after a first-lap crash with Kevin Magnussen sent him and the Haas driver to the back of the field by a significant margin.
Hamilton asked his team to consider retiring the car to save the engine but was told points for eighth place were possible – though so strong was his pace in the upgraded Mercedes that he recorded to just 12s behind his podium-finishing teammate.
Valtteri Bottas finished sixth on a rare two-stop strategy – tactics for which the Alfa Romeo driver rued were incorrect as Sainz and Hamilton breezed past him late in the race.
Esteban Ocon finished seventh, recovering five places off the grid thanks in part to a great launch that gained him three places off the line.
Lando Norris was eighth for McLaren despite suffering from illness through the weekend, with Fernando Alonso following him for two more points in ninth and Yuki Tsunoda completing the top 10.
Sebastian Vettel beat Daniel Ricciardo to 11th, followed by Pierre Gasly and the fast-sinking Mick Schumacher, who dropped from ninth and potentially his first career points to 14th in the last 11 laps.
Lance Stroll was 15th ahead of Nicholas Latifi, Kevin Magnussen and Alex Albon.