Sebastian Vettel fended off the challenge from Lewis Hamilton to take his fourth victory of the season in the Spanish Grand Prix.
The Red Bull Racing driver was under immense pressure from his racing rival following a final pit-stop to the harder ‘Prime’ tyres and it was fascinating to see the world champion battling against the determined McLaren driver.
Jenson Button adopted a three-stop strategy to take third, while Mark Webber – who started the race in pole position – ended up back in fourth. Home crowd favourite Fernando Alonso slumped down to a lapped fifth after gloriously leading the first two stints of the race.
Webber’s pole advantage only lasted a few yards as Vettel was immediately all over him off the grid. As the Red Bulls battled, the fast-starting Alonso picked up the slipstream on both and dive down the inside into Turn 1 and sending the crowd ecstatic by taking the lead of his home race.
Alonso remained in the lead for the first two stints of the race although Vettel, Webber and Hamilton were close behind the Ferrari.
As for the activation zone for the Drag Reduction System at the Circuit de Catalunya – which is situated on the main pit straight – it wasn’t proving as dramatically effective compared to Turkey and that allow Alonso to escape from the chasing pack.
Vettel tried to jump ahead of his rivals by pitting one lap sooner for his first tyre change – but he emerged into traffic. Despite diving past Jenson Button – who had fallen to tenth with a slow start – Massa and Rosberg in the space of one dynamic out-lap, the world championship leader still found himself back behind Alonso when the Ferrari rejoined.
But at the second stops on laps 17 and 18, Red Bull Racing’s strategy worked out perfectly, and an extra lap on new fresh tyres was sufficient to give Vettel a clear lead.
While Webber pitted at the same moment as Alonso and stayed behind the Ferrari, McLaren tried a different tactic and kept Hamilton out until lap 22, which promoted him past Alonso and Webber from fourth to second position.
Vettel and Hamilton then pulled away in unison, as Alonso dropped ever further behind with Webber close behind. Button then passed the Ferrari and Red Bull in quick succession mid-race as Jenson’s three-stop strategy meant it was on softer ‘Option’ tyres while Alonso and Webber were grappling with the harder ‘Prime’.
Webber finally got past Alonso at the final pit-stop, when the Red Bull stayed out a full eight laps longer and had no trouble getting ahead of the fading Ferrari, which began to lap three seconds off the pace late on as it struggled badly with the Prime tyres and was eventually lapped by the leaders.
While Webber proved unable to catch Button for third, Hamilton got ever closer to Vettel in the closing laps. The Red Bull’s radio transmission suggesting that again the Sebastian’s KERS was only working intermittently.
It built-up to a thrilling finale as Hamilton was edging closer to race leader Vettel and with the use of KERS and DRS, the McLaren driver had an opportunity to pass and win the race. But unlike China with the late position change, Vettel resisted the pressure by making sure he made no mistakes and he took the chequered flag by a margin of six tenths of a second.
Among the lapped cars, Mercedes team-mates Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg had a tough race-long duel for sixth position, with the former staying ahead.
Nick Heidfeld was all over the back of the Silver Arrows at the end, making excellent use of a clever strategy and fresh Pirellis to fly through from the back of the grid in the Renault.
The Saubers completed the top ten with Sergio Perez taking his first points finish, while team-mate Kamui Kobayashi doing well to recover from a first-lap puncture.
Felipe Massa struggled throughout the Grand Prix, and after a mid-race spin, the Brazilian finally dumped his Ferrari in the gravel with six laps to go with a loss of gears.
Paul di Resta got as high as fifth with a very strong opening stint on hard tyres, but did not have the pace later on to turn that into points, ending up P12, behind Vitaly Petrov.
Team Lotus showed its best race pace yet and had both cars in the top ten for a while thanks to long opening stints on the ‘Option’ tyres, but later faded, with Jarno Trulli only P18 and Heikki Kovalainen crashing out at Turn 4.
As for Williams, this was a difficult race for both Pastor Maldonado and Rubens Barrichello. The former lacked pace and slumped down to P15 while the latter charge from the back never materialised. It certainly didn’t help by a slow pit-stop, which resulted in only P17.
So yet another victory for the reigning world champion with four wins from five Grands Prix. This is an impressive achievement and it will be fascinating to see if anyone can catch Sebastian Vettel. Next stop is the glamorous Monaco Grand Prix in seven days time.
Spanish Grand Prix results, 66 laps:
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h39:03.301
2. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes +0.630
3. Button McLaren-Mercedes +35.697
4. Webber Red Bull-Renault +47.966
5. Alonso Ferrari +1 lap
6. Schumacher Mercedes +1 lap
7. Rosberg Mercedes +1 lap
8. Heidfeld Renault +1 lap
9. Perez Sauber-Ferrari +1 lap
10. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari +1 lap
11. Petrov Renault +1 lap
12. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes +1 lap
13. Sutil Force India-Mercedes +1 lap
14. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari +1 lap
15. Maldonado Williams-Cosworth +1 lap
16. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari +2 laps
17. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth +2 laps
18. Trulli Lotus-Renault +2 laps
19. Glock Virgin-Cosworth +3 laps
20. D’Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth +3 laps
21. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth +4 laps
Fastest lap: Alonso, 1:26.727
Massa Ferrari 60 laps
Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 49 laps
Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth 29 laps
World Championship standings, round 5:
1. Vettel 118
2. Hamilton 77
3. Webber 67
4. Button 61
5. Alonso 51
6. Rosberg 26
7. Heidfeld 25
8. Massa 24
9. Petrov 21
10. Schumacher 14
11. Kobayashi 9
12. Buemi 6
13. Sutil 2
14. Di Resta 2
15. Perez 2
1. Red Bull-Renault 185
2. McLaren-Mercedes 138
3. Ferrari 75
4. Renault 46
5. Mercedes 40
6. Sauber-Ferrari 11
7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 6
8. Force India-Mercedes 4
Next race: Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo. May 24-29.