Verstappen muscled up ahead of poleman Hamilton on the long descent to Turn 1 on the first lap, and managed to keep the British rider at bay throughout the first stint.
But a decision by Mercedes to make a long first stint and then hit Hamilton for the second time with 24 laps to go put the seven-time world champion on track for victory in Spain.
Hamilton managed to close the 22-second gap with Verstappen and take the lead with seven laps to go, with Red Bull then bringing their driver only a second time to get the fastest lap bonus point.
Verstappen accepted after the race that there was little he could have done to beat Hamilton following Mercedes’ decision to beat him a second time, knowing how big the tire delta was.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
“In a way, I could see it coming,” Verstappen said.
“Already at the end of the softs, he was faster, then when we put the mids on, he clearly had a lot more rhythm, he could just stay in a second.
“So there wasn’t much we could have done. They went for another stop and then I knew it was over because I was already struggling with the tires, and you could see it with every lap it was getting closer and closer.
“[I was a] a little duck sitting down.
Verstappen was heard in the second stint of the race calling Hamilton’s grip advantage “crazy” after seeing a 5.5 second lead lost to less than half a second.
“When you’re in the lead with the cars in traffic and everything in between you don’t want to end up in traffic, but of course that makes things a lot easier when you just have a clear advantage,” Verstappen said. .
“Of course if we had jumped for another stop I don’t know if we would have caught up, but really lacking in pace. But nonetheless, I tried everything I could.
The result continued Mercedes’ remarkable Spanish Grand Prix record, the team having won the race for seven of the past eight years.
But Verstappen didn’t much appreciate the fact that Red Bull had pushed Mercedes so close, saying it proved the team still had a deficit to recover.
“It shows that we are not yet where we want to be,” said Verstappen.
“We still have to push hard and catch up, because at the moment we are a little slower.
“But still, compared to last year, I think it was a big leap for us.”