Red Bull calls it right
Like most on the grid, pole position starter Verstappen started on Pirelli’s red-walled soft tyres for what was planned as a two-stop race. But Hamilton and George Russell, starting fourth and sixth respectively, were on the yellow-walled mediums as Mercedes chose an alternative one-stopper in an effort to beat Red Bull and the Ferraris. It was a decent shout, and did at least give the Red Bull pitwall a headache they could have done without.
Once the Mercedes duo finished their longer first stints and had pitted for the hard tyre, Hamilton was left with a deficit of just under 20 seconds. That was enough to ensure that when Verstappen took his second stop he’d rejoin behind the lead Mercedes. The home hero was on the medium tyre, but still struggled to stretch the gap to a position of safety – meaning at this stage the race was in the balance. Although was it really? Verstappen on fresher tyres for the final stint versus Hamilton on aging white-walled rubber wouldn’t have been much of a fair fight on the notoriously tricky and intense circuit in the sand dunes.
Then Yuki Tsunoda suffered his odd troubles in the AlphaTauri, stopping to report a tyre was not fitted after a pit visit, only to be told otherwise by his team. He returned to the pits, the team tightened his loosened belts, sent him on his way and then ordered him to stop again with a terminal problem. That triggered the Virtual Safety Car and a flurry of stops, Verstappen taking on hards, Hamilton and Russell new mediums. Max kept his lead, but now Hamilton went to work, eating into the gap and reducing it from 15 to 10 seconds – until Valtteri Bottas lost his Alfa Romeo’s engine and parked at the end of the pit straight. A full safety car was required this time.