The two leaders came extremely close to touching at the race’s first corner, with Verstappen making an aggressive move to get ahead, which forced Mercedes into making two bold strategy calls to get Hamilton back into a position to win his 98th grand prix.
At the start, Verstappen appeared to make a faster getaway from the front row, but dipped in behind Hamilton once the Mercedes shot up to speed.
But Verstappen stole to the inside for the first corner and boldly held on to take the racing line through Turn 2, which meant the two leaders came very close to touching – Hamilton backing out to avoid a collision by the barest of margins.
Bottas followed the top three through the opening two turns, but as he trailed Hamilton through Turn 3 he was overtaken by Charles Leclerc roaring around on the outside line – emulating Fernando Alonso’s similar move at the start of the 2013 Spanish GP.
Leclerc muscling into third meant the top two easily began to romp away in the closing stages of the 66-lap race, with Verstappen and Hamilton the only drivers lapping in the 1m23s.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12 battle at the start of the race
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Verstappen was able to edge clear to a near two-second lead before Hamilton had just begun to close back in when the race was suspended by a safety car period called on lap eight so Yuki Tsunoda’s car could be recovered from the outside of the reprofiled Turn 10 – the AlphaTauri car appearing to shutdown on Tsunoda as he approached the long left-hander.
When the race restarted on lap 11, Verstappen dropped Hamilton exiting the final chicane and weaved across the main straight to try and disrupt the tow going back to the Mercedes, which was in any case close to the following Leclerc.
As DRS was suspended for the first two laps after the restart, Hamilton could not get close while running at just under a second behind and Verstappen was able to just creep his advantage up above the critical one-second threshold when DRS was reactivated.
Much like at the start, Verstappen and Hamilton quickly pulled clear of Leclerc and Bottas – again lapping at a low 1m23s pace that the rest of the pack could not match.
As the race moved past the end of its first third, Hamilton began to heavily pressure Verstappen, who pitted at the end of lap 24 to take the medium tyres – but had to endure a 4.2s stop as the Red Bull’s new left-rear tyre was still coming out of the garage when the Dutchman arrived at his box.
But Mercedes did not bring Hamilton in to cover the Red Bull stop on the next tour – team boss Toto Wolff heard complaining to race director Michael Masi about Nikita Mazepin holding up Hamilton on the lap after Verstappen came in.
Hamilton was left out for three further laps before he came in to take the mediums, with Leclerc following him in far behind and emerging well adrift of Bottas, who had pitted the lap before Verstappen.
Verstappen comfortably retook the lead with Hamilton in the pits and had a 5.5s lead at the end of the Mercedes driver’s out-lap.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
But Hamilton’s tyre offset meant he could run at a much quicker pace – the world champion carving into Verstappen’s lead by around 1.5s a lap as he logged successive laps in low-to-mid 1m21s.
By the start of lap 34, he was just a second behind the leader and continued to home in – with Mercedes even telling Bottas that his pace in third was good enough to catch the Red Bull by the end.
In the subsequent phase of the race, Hamilton was in and out of Verstappen’s DRS range, but was unable to get really close to the leader, who had upped his pace significantly to reach the 1m21s bracket when Hamilton reached the critical one-second deficit.
With the gap at the front relatively stable, Mercedes made an aggressive call to pit Hamilton again at the end of lap 42 for another set of mediums – these ones used from earlier in the weekend.
Sir Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, leads Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, and Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
At the end of Hamilton’s out-lap, he faced a 22s gap to close, with Red Bull opting to leave Verstappen out on a one-stopper to the finish as he had no medium tyres left heading into the race.
Hamilton again carved into Verstappen’s lead – regularly setting fastest laps and going over 1.5s quicker – but he did appear to lose time at one point passing Bottas just as the final 15 laps approached, with the second Mercedes ordered not to hold up the other car, but Hamilton still having to make closer-than-comfortable move into Turn 10 on lap 53.
But once Hamilton was clear he continued to rapidly close in on Verstappen with a string of fastest laps and reached the leader again on lap 59.
As they ran down the pit straight at the start of the next tour, Verstappen weaved to break the tow once again, but Hamilton’s pace was so much higher with DRS that he shot ahead on the outside line and swept back into the lead at the exact spot he had lost it on the opening lap.
Red Bull immediately then opted to pit Verstappen for a second time to chase the fastest lap bonus point – a tactic Mercedes had already taken with Bottas.
Hamilton came home with a comfortable 15.8s lead at the finish, with Verstappen winning the battle to take the fastest lap with a 1m18.149s.
Leclerc finished a lonely fourth – Bottas had overtaken him with a DRS blast in the closing stages after the Mercedes driver’s late second stop – well clear of Sergio Perez, who came home fifth after winning a lengthy mid-race scrap with McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo.
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
Carlos Sainz Jr finished seventh ahead of Lando Norris, who appeared to receive a black-and-white flag sanction for an aggressive late move to defend against the Ferrari driver into Turn 1 as the race entered its final quarter.
Esteban Ocon lost ground from his fifth place grid spot at the start and he eventually came home ninth ahead of Pierre Gasly, who came out on top of an intense fight with the pack just outside the top 10 – which was at the time headed by Fernando Alonso, who eventually came home 17th – in the final laps.
Gasly had to serve a five-second penalty at his first stop for lining up too far over of his grid spot for the start.
F1 Spanish Grand Prix results – 66 laps