Lewis Hamilton used his last vestiges of energy when he leapt out of his Mercedes and into the arms of his euphoric mechanics. It was the 55th victory of a magnificent career, but few have required a physical effort as Herculean as this. The Circuit de Catalunya is notoriously demanding of drivers’ bodies, with its abrasive surface and high-speed corners, and Hamilton looked a husk in the wake of 66 laps of compelling duelling with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
On the scales, he saw that he had lost 4½ pounds in weight. Hamilton had decided against carrying drinks in his car, to save on overall load, and even the jeroboam of champagne that he sprayed all over the podium here could barely have replaced the amount of fluid lost. But when he allows himself a look at the championship standings, with his deficit to Vettel cut to five points at the top, he can reflect that it was worth every drop.
In a race of see-sawing fortunes as the two outstanding drivers of their generation skirmished, Hamilton prevailed thanks both to his cussedness and the tactical astuteness of Mercedes’ engineers. He had lost the advantage of pole position by the first corner as Vettel dived down the inside, but an ingenious rethink by the Silver Arrows allowed him to attack his rival in the final stages on faster soft tyres. The plan worked to perfection as he swept past the German on lap 44 with a beautifully timed overtake, laying the platform for one of his finest and most richly satisfying wins.
Hamilton lives for battles of this intensity. Having tired of the quarrelsome relationship with Nico Rosberg, his former team-mate, he relishes a straight, honest head-to-head with an opponent he likes and admires. “To stay on Seb was a killer,” he said. “He was so fast up ahead, it was such a push to keep up. It is the rawest fight I can remember having for some time, which I loved. This is how the sport needs to be every single race – it is what got me into racing from the beginning. To be able to have this battle with a four-time champion is awesome.”
Barely the width of a sheet of sugar paper can separate Hamilton and Vettel on this evidence. It is testament to their pre-eminence – and to the skill of their teams in the technological arms race – that even though both cars arrived in Barcelona with upgrades galore, they have never been closer on the track. A mere 51 hundredths of a second apart in qualifying, they jousted with the same ferocity throughout the grand prix, raising the prospect of a tussle that could extend unabated until the season’s climax in Abu Dhabi.
All was peace and love in the aftermath as the pair exchanged plaudits.
Where he developed a dynamic with Rosberg that was at best testy, at worst downright hostile, Hamilton describes the challenge of outsmarting Vettel as a “privilege”. Given that Vettel holds four world titles to his three, it is not as if he can claim superiority, but the warmth between them away from the asphalt appears genuine.
“Lewis won fair and square,” Vettel acknowledged. “I can’t take anything away from him.”
The soundtrack of this Spanish Grand Prix was dominated by Hamilton’s huffing and puffing over the intercom. Vettel’s pass off the start line had forced the Briton into maximum attack mode throughout, and at several points he had to ask Pete Bonnington, his race engineer, to stop bothering him.
“Keep pushing, Lewis,” Bonnington urged, patiently but redundantly. Hamilton, flustered and out of breath, was pushing as hard as he was capable.
The level of threat from Ferrari has brought out another dimension in Mercedes, who are compelled to be tougher, cleverer and more adaptable than at any stage of their 3½-year supremacy in the sport. While there was dismay at Valtteri Bottas retiring with an engine failure, the combination of factors that propelled Hamilton to glory, from cute strategy calls to lightning-quick pit stops, showed that they would not be relinquishing their crown easily.
“It was an epic grand prix,” team principal Toto Wolff reflected. “Racing simply doesn’t go more wheel-to-wheel.”
Perhaps so, but there must be concern at the size of the gap that Mercedes and Ferrari have opened up on their pursuers. Vettel crossed the line 76 seconds clear of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo in third as the Australian spent his Sunday on a solitary cruise through the Catalonian countryside. Force India merited an honourable mention as Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon took fourth and fifth, but they are miles behind the top two.
Bottas contributed to Hamilton’s victory by holding up Vettel for over two seconds, but the quadruple champion gained his revenge with a move for the ages. Dicing from one side of the track to the other, he befuddled Bottas with a manoeuvre that brought Ferrari staff to their feet in the team garage.
Gone are the days when Vettel’s driving genius was doubted. At 29, he is at the height of his powers for this slug-fest with Hamilton, three years his senior. We might only be a quarter of the way through this campaign, but the central prize-fight between two of F1’s most complex and obdurate characters feels like the only show in town.