MONTMELÓ, Spain (AP) — Nothing was going right for Max Verstappen at the Spanish Grand Prix: the wind had blown his car off course, his Red Bull was struggling, and top rival Charles Leclerc seemed headed for a sure victory.
His fortunes turned when Leclerc lost power and his Ferrari suddenly sputtered to a near stop.
Then Verstappen’s own Red Bull team intervened by ordering Sergio Pérez to get out of Verstappen’s way. The reigning Formula One champion went from from minimizing damage Sunday to winning the race and reclaiming the points lead.
“Not an easy start to the race, but we turned it around,” Verstappen said after his fourth win of the season, third consecutive.
Then the Dutchman thanked Pérez, who might have won himself but settled for second when Red Bull issued team orders.
“He is a great teammate,” Verstappen said.
Pérez took over the lead after Leclerc, who started from the 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 ability to race for his third career F1 victory.
The stakes were too high for Red Bull and Verstappen, who trailed Leclerc by 19 points ahead of the race but now holds a six-point advantage in defense of his first world championship. Pérez, who registered the fastest lap in Sunday’s race, is third in the standings and 19 points behind Leclerc.
“I am happy for the team, but we need to speak later,” Pérez told his team by radio after the 1-2 Red Bull finish.
Leclerc, meanwhile, had a terrific start and easily cleared Verstappen and controlled the race until Lap 27.
“No! No! No! What happened?” he screamed on 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.”
It closed a terrible day for Ferrari, which started first and third but Carlos Sainz Jr. was gobbled up at the start and dropped to sixth before the first turn. Seeking a victory in his home grand prix, Sainz later was blown off course by the wind in the same spot as Verstappen but ultimately rallied to finish fourth.
Sainz was beaten by George Russell, who finished third for his second podium of the season with Mercedes. Russell also had an impressive battles with Perez and Verstappen and held the champion up as Verstappen tried to recover from his own spin.
Mercedes had won the race the past five consecutive years with Lewis Hamilton, and the seven-time champion finished fifth on Sunday. He’d fallen to the back of the grid on the opening lap because of contact with Kevin Magnussen at the start and Hamilton had to stop for new tires.
Mercedes has struggled through the first six races of the F1 season as its new 2022 car is still a work in progress. Russell, in his first season with Mercedes, has finished higher than Hamilton in five of the six races.
“It was a very pleasing weekend with lots of positive signs, even though I’m not yet ecstatic,” said Mercedes head Toto Wolff. “With Lewis we had probably the fastest race car of all. George put up a spectacular defense to Max, the way he positioned the car was spot-on, the kind of racing we love to see, and he managed the car well at the end to bring home another podium.
“We unlocked the potential of the car by tweaking things on the stops and so today was the most valuable race for us to compare the two cars. Our understanding took a big step forward and there’s definitely more to come.”
The circuit is notoriously difficult with limited passing zone and the pole-sitter has won 23 of 32 times on the 4.6-kilometer (2.8-mile) Barcelona-Catalunya circuit. If not for Leclerc’s power failure, Verstappen probably wouldn’t have had a chance.
Valtteri Bottas finished 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 after he’s suffering from tonsillitis, and combined with the heat, it was “one of the hardest races I’ve ever done.”
“I was feeling really unwell before the race,” Norris said. “I’ve been a bit on the backfoot this weekend as most of my energy has been spent fighting off this illness. I’ve had to miss a lot of engineering sessions, which has compromised my weekend, and I definitely wasn’t as prepared for the Grand Prix as I could have been.”
Local favorite Fernando Alonso, who has struggled all season, recovered nicely 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 the points, I can’t ask for anything more,” Alonso said.
Next up: Leclerc’s home race in Monaco.
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