Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes gets by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. “Why have we not stopped in response?” demanded Verstappen upon realising that with 22 laps to go he was now about to be hunted down by Lewis Hamilton on tyres 23 laps newer.
In the competitive heat and strained sinews of the moment, both were convinced they were on the wrong strategy. Thing was, no-one really knew what the right and wrong strategy was. Not even those on the pitwall.
But Mercedes, running as the car behind, could afford to throw the dice in a way Red Bull could not. So far ahead of everyone else were the king and pretender, that Lewis Hamilton could make the second stop without loss of position.
Red Bull could have anticipated that and surrendered the lead with a second pit stop of its own, of course. In which case Hamilton would have stayed out and tried to win it that way. But to surrender the lead to Hamilton and Mercedes for the sake of a strategy that might or might not have worked? That would have been crazy, surely.
And that’s how it was for the hot afternoon, a flat-out gunslinger’s duel between the two most exciting performers on the grid, each pushing the other beyond their comfort zone.
“Tell me when he’s in DRS range?” one would demand of his team. “I can’t put any more pressure on than this,” would respond the other to a request to do just that.
“These tyres aren’t going to live.”
“Traffic, king blue flags.”
“What’s the wind doing?”
“Brake temps, brake temps.”
“Has he got car damage? Why’s he dropped back?”
“You need to give me full power.”
“Don’t know how much tyres will be left at the end.”
A barrage of radio demands from each of them, like fighter pilots taking flak, as they each understood the only way to win was to push the other beyond his limits. But whose were higher?
As it turned out, the Mercedes appeared to have a small underlying pace advantage on race day – and that’s all it turned on. Merc reckoned it had maybe 0.15sec, at most, on the recently improved Red Bull, an estimate Red Bull agreed with.
Such was the pace Hamilton had forced upon the Red Bull, Verstappen didn’t have enough rubber left to fend off the Merc strategy gamble. “My tyres are dead,” Verstappen radioed with seven laps to go. Three laps later, the hunter pounced upon the tired, defenceless, exhausted hunted. Around a minute back, Sebastian Vettel passed the other Ferrari of Charles Leclerc for the final podium place.