BARCELONA: Sebastian Vettel lost the battle, not the Formula One title.
Despite a great start in individual duels with Mercedes, Ferrari's top driver finished Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix exactly where he started: in second place behind Lewis Hamilton.
Vettel can take heart, however, from the fact that the difference between the winner and runner-up came down to a choice of team strategy that went Mercedes' way. Hamilton finished the race on a faster set of tires than Vettel, passing the German on Lap 43 of 66 and conserving his tires as he sped away to victory.
"I think we can be very happy, but today we're not entirely happy because the win was there," Vettel said. "The car was quick enough but the way the race happened, it wasn't meant to be. The most important thing is that we were there. Once again fighting, hanging in there, not much missing at the end."
Vettel remained in the series lead, now reduced to six points from 13 over Hamilton, with his third second-place finish to go with two wins in five races.
Equally as important, Ferrari showed that the upgrades brought by both title contenders to Spain canceled one another out.
Vettel's Ferrari was a mere 0.051 seconds slower than Hamilton in Saturday's qualifying. He finished the race less than four second behind Hamilton, and Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo was nowhere close finishing a distant third.
Vettel also won three of the four jousts he had with Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
His excellent jump from the start allowed him to pass Hamilton at the first turn.
Next, Vettel engaged Bottas in an exhilarating lap-long chase before finally getting past the Finn on the third try, even though the effort slowed down Vettel and let Hamilton shave off valuable seconds from behind.
"I was really happy, but then I looked down and (saw) I'd lost an awful lot of time, so I wasn't that happy because the real fight was with Lewis," Vettel said. "We lost four seconds."
Those seconds meant that when Vettel emerged from a second pit stop he was neck-and-neck with a hard-charging Hamilton. But Vettel defended his inside position on a curve, sending Hamilton off as they came close to touching.
Vettel had kept his lead, but Hamilton waited for a straightaway to blow past him on his faster tires and never looked back.
Vettel said the race was there for the taking.
"The car is good, the team is in great form," he said. "We're very happy when we have the chance to race Mercedes. They have been proving over and over in the last few years that they are the team to beat. We are giving them, so far, a good run for their money."
Vettel's and Hamilton's teammates both abandoned the race. Bottas bumped Kimi Raikkonen on the first turn, sending his Ferrari into Max Verstappen's Red Bull, damaging both cars' front suspension. Bottas was later forced to stop his Mercedes when it started spouting smoke midway through the race.
Raikkonen used the extra time to do a good deed, as "the Iceman" showed some warmth to a despondent young fan. While the race went on without him, Raikkonen met with a young boy decked out in Ferrari's red which televised images had caught crying after he had crashed.
Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said the knock by Bottas that cost Raikkonen an early exit was just part of F1.
"Shame for the end result, but we leave Spain knowing that we can count on a car that is solid and very quick," Arrivabene said. "The championship is still a long way and we are already focusing on the next race at Monaco."
After spending three years battling retired teammate Nico Rosberg for the title, Hamilton said he was enjoying taking the fight outside Mercedes' garage.
"To have that close battle with him, with a four-time champ, is awesome," Hamilton, himself a three-time champion, said about Vettel. "I think it was the rawest fight I can remember having for some real time, which I loved. This is why I race and this is what got me into racing in the beginning."
Hamilton will get another chance to tangle with Vettel in two weeks at the Monaco GP.