MONTMELÓ, Spain (AP) — Nothing was going well for Max Verstappen at the Spanish Grand Prix: the wind had swerved his car, his Red Bull was struggling and his arch-rival Charles Leclerc seemed to be heading for a certain victory.
His fortunes turned when Leclerc lost power and his Ferrari suddenly stopped.
Then Verstappen’s own Red Bull team intervened, ordering Sergio Pérez out of Verstappen’s way. The reigning Formula 1 champion went from minimizing damage on Sunday to winning the race and regaining the points.
“It wasn’t an easy start to the race, but we turned it around,” Verstappen said after his fourth win of the season, a third in a row.
Then the Dutchman thanked Pérez, who could have won on his own but settled for second place when Red Bull issued team orders.
“He’s a great teammate,” Verstappen said.
Pérez took the lead after Leclerc, who started from pole and led the first 27 laps, lost power. But with 17 laps remaining, Red Bull told him to get out of Verstappen’s way.
“It’s unfair but OK,” said Pérez, who was denied the chance to race for his third career F1 victory.
The stakes were too high for Red Bull and Verstappen, who trailed Leclerc by 19 points before the race but now hold a six-point advantage to defend their maiden world championship. Pérez, who recorded the fastest lap in Sunday’s race, is third in the standings and 19 points behind Leclerc.
“I’m happy for the team, but we have to talk later,” Pérez told his team over the radio after the Red Bull double.
Leclerc, meanwhile, got off to a great start and easily cleared Verstappen and controlled the race until lap 27.
“No! No! No! What happened?” he shouted on his radio.
Once out of his Ferrari, he explained that it was an engine failure.
“I lost engine power and had to stop,” said Leclerc. “I don’t know what the problem is yet, but it hurts.”
It capped a terrible day for Ferrari, who started first and third but Carlos Sainz Jr. was gobbled up at the start and dropped to sixth before the first corner. Looking for a win in his home Grand Prix, Sainz was then blown away at the same spot as Verstappen but eventually pulled himself together to finish fourth.
Sainz was beaten by George Russell, who finished third for his second podium of the season with Mercedes. Russell also had impressive battles with Perez and Verstappen and held the champion as Verstappen tried to recover from his own rotation.
Mercedes had won the race for the past five consecutive years with Lewis Hamilton, and the seven-time champion finished fifth on Sunday. He fell to the back of the grid on the first lap due to contact with Kevin Magnussen at the start and Hamilton had to stop to change tyres.
Mercedes has struggled in the first six races of the F1 season as its new 2022 car is still on the way. Russell, in his first season with Mercedes, finished better than Hamilton in five of six races.
“It was a very nice weekend with a lot of positive signs, although I’m not ecstatic yet,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “With Lewis we had probably the fastest race car of all. George put up a spectacular defense against Max, the way he positioned the car was perfect, the kind of racing we like to see, and he handled the car well at the end to bring home another podium.
“We’ve unlocked the car’s potential by tweaking things on the stops and so today was the most valuable race for us to compare the two cars. Our understanding has taken a big step forward and there’s definitely more coming.
The circuit is notoriously difficult with a limited passing zone and the poleman has won 23 of 32 times on the 4.6 kilometer (2.8 mile) Barcelona-Catalonia circuit. If not for Leclerc’s blackout, Verstappen probably wouldn’t have been lucky.
Valtteri Bottas was sixth for Alfa Romeo, Esteban Ocon was seventh in his Alpine and Lando Norris was eighth for McLaren, despite being seen vomiting just before the start of the race.
Norris said that after suffering from tonsillitis, and combined with the heat, it was “one of the toughest races I’ve ever done”.
“I felt really bad before the race,” Norris said. “I was a bit on my back this weekend as most of my energy was spent fighting this disease. I had to miss a lot of engineering sessions which compromised my weekend, and I was definitely not as prepared for the Grand Prix as I could have been.
Home favorite Fernando Alonso, who has struggled all season, has recovered well from a last-place start after Alpine changed his car’s engine. He finished ninth ahead of Yuki Tsunoda in his Alphatauri.
“From last to points, I can’t ask for anything more,” said Alonso.
Next step: Leclerc’s home race in Monaco.
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