MONTEMELO, Spain (AFP) – Nothing was going well for Max Verstappen at the Spanish Grand Prix: The wind had smashed his car off the track, his Red Bull was struggling, and main rival Charles Leclerc seemed to be heading for a sure victory. .
His fortunes turned when Leclerc lost ground and Ferrari suddenly came to a near stop.
Then Verstappen’s Red Bull team stepped in and asked Sergio Perez to get out of Verstappen’s path. The reigning Formula 1 champion went from minimizing damage on Sunday to winning the race and reclaiming the lead on points.
“It’s not an easy start to the race, but we turned it around,” Verstappen said after his fourth win of the season and third in a row.
He then thanked Dutchman Perez, who could have won himself but settled into second place when Red Bull gave the team orders.
“He’s a great teammate,” Verstappen said.
Perez took the lead after Leclerc, who started from pole position and led the first 27 laps, lost his power. But with 17 laps left, Red Bull told him to steer clear of Verstappen.
“It’s unfair but it’s okay,” said Perez, who was denied the ability to race for his third Formula One victory.
The stakes were too high for Red Bull and Verstappen, who edged Leclerc by 19 points ahead of the race, but now have a six-point advantage in defense of their first world championship. Perez, who set the fastest lap in Sunday’s race, is third in the standings, 19 points behind Leclerc.
“I’m happy for the team, but we need to talk later,” Perez told his team over the radio after finishing 1-2 for Red Bull.
Meanwhile, Leclerc made a great start, easily beat Verstappen and dominated the race until lap 27.
“No! No! No! What happened?” He shouted at his radio.
Once out of his Ferrari, he said it was an engine failure.
“I lost engine power and had to stop,” Leclerc said. “I don’t know what the problem is yet, but it hurts.”
He ended a terrible day for Ferrari, who started first and third, but Carlos Sainz Jr was devoured at the start and slipped back to sixth before the first turn. In pursuit of a home Grand Prix win, Sainz was later knocked off course by the wind in the same spot as Verstappen but eventually rushed out to finish fourth.
Sainz was beaten by George Russell, who finished third on his second podium finish this season with Mercedes. Russell also had impressive fights with Perez and Verstappen and held off the champ as Verstappen tried to recover from his own role.
Mercedes has won the race for the past five years in a row with Lewis Hamilton, and the seven-times champion finished fifth on Sunday. He fell into the back of the net on the opening lap due to contact with Kevin Magnussen at the start and Hamilton had to stop to get new tyres.
Mercedes struggled through the first six races of the Formula 1 season as its new 2022 car is still in the works. Russell, in his first season with Mercedes, has finished above Hamilton in five of the six races.
“It was a very enjoyable weekend with a lot of positive indications, although I haven’t been feeling very happy yet,” said Mercedes chief Toto Wolff. “With Lewis we probably had the fastest race car ever. George made an amazing defense for Max, the way he put the car in place, the kind of race we love to see, and he was able to drive really well in the end to bring home another podium.
“We’ve unleashed the potential of the car by modifying things at the stations, so today was the most valuable race for us to compare the two cars. Our understanding has taken a huge step forward and there is definitely more to come.”
The circuit is known to be tough with a limited passing area and the outgoing goalkeeper has won 23 of 32 times at Barcelona’s 4.6 km (2.8 mi) circuit. Had it not been for Leclerc’s power outage, Verstappen might not have had a chance.
Valtteri Bottas finished sixth with Alfa Romeo, Esteban Ocon finished seventh in the Alps series and Lando Norris finished eighth with McLaren, despite seeing him vomiting before the race started.
Norris said that after suffering from tonsillitis, as well as the heat, it was “one of the toughest races I’ve ever had.”
“I was feeling really unwell before the race,” Norris said. “I was in a bit of a weak position this weekend as I spent most of my energy battling this disease. I had to miss a lot of engineering sessions, which hurt the weekend, and I definitely wasn’t as ready for the Grand Prix as I could have been.”
Local favorite Fernando Alonso, who has struggled all season, recovered well from his last-place start after Alpine changed his engine. He finished ninth, ahead of Yuki Tsunoda in his Alvatori.
“From the end to the points, I can’t ask for anything else,” Alonso said.
Next up: Leclerc’s home race in Monaco.
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