By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) - Max Verstappen's Red Bull race engineer realised immediately what was going on when Lewis Hamilton, running a close second to the Dutch driver, suddenly pitted for fresh tyres 23 laps from the end of Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix.
"It's like Hungary all over again," he said.
In 2019, Verstappen led for 67 of 70 laps at the Hungaroring but not the ones that mattered most after Mercedes took a tyre gamble and brought Hamilton in for a winning early second pitstop.
On Sunday, Verstappen seized the lead at the start but ultimately lost out when the champions pulled off the same gambit.
When Hamilton re-emerged on track at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya, the seven times world champion asked his race engineer Peter Bonnington how far behind he was.
"Currently 22 seconds," came the answer. "We've done it before."
Hamilton, now 14 points clear of his rival at the top after four close races, said he had been "really conflicted" about the strategy and could have ignored the call but put his trust in the team.
"It was a long way to come back from some 20 odd seconds back but it was a good gamble, a really great strategy from the team," he said.
Verstappen said there was very little he could have done to change the outcome.
"I knew that as soon as they pitted that second time he would come back at me a bit like Hungary," he said.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff complimented the team's strategists back at the factory in England for crunching the numbers and running the computer simulations.
"They said, 'In our planner if you were to stop now we would end up catching him one lap to the end and it would have a tyre differential of 1.4 seconds and we believe that it is enough,' said the Austrian.
"In the end, we trust them and we trust the data.
"This is really where the strategy team comes into play, saying the probability’s higher that we overtake him at the end of the race than now on a tyre that is only five laps younger," added Wolff.
The only miscalculation was that it took Hamilton fewer laps than expected.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)