Sunday at the Dutch Grand Prix is set up with the stuff of Formula 1 dreams: the two title protagonists sharing the front row with cars of differing strengths around a roller-coaster of a classic circuit before throngs of passionate fans.
No pressure on delivering, then.
Max Verstappen’s pole, won by just 0.038 seconds, sent the 70,000-strong crowd into raptures, and not just because he pipped Lewis Hamilton to the flag. Overtaking is expected to be difficult at Circuit Zandvoort, and with the Red Bull Racing car quicker through the flowing bends, a strong defensive drive should be enough to keep the home hero ahead of the Mercedes and its superior straight-line speed.
But as we last saw in a similarly tip-tuck contest, that puts a great deal of emphasis on the first lap.
Many already have drawn parallels to the British Grand Prix, where Verstappen ended up on pole alongside Hamilton after sprint qualifying only for the two to infamously come together part of the way through the first lap. Both knew then how crucial a first-lap lead would be, with each car’s strengths neutralised by the other’s.
The bowl-like nature of Zandvoort’s banked turns, fundamentally new to Formula 1, only intensifies the focus on the lap-one action, with different lines on offer for whoever is bold enough to be ambitious.
And if Hamilton can’t get ahead, Mercedes has a card up its sleeve bearing a likeness to Valtteri Bottas. The Finn qualified third and will be deployable for strategic purposes, whereas Sergio Perez will start at the back after the team sent him out into traffic for his final Q1 lap, causing him to miss the chequered flag.
Combine those factors with the high likelihood of a safety car and even a red flag, and the Dutch Grand Prix has all the makings of a must-watch race.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 4.259 kilometres
Lap record: NA
Track record: 1:00.000 (Oldmate, Team, 2021)
Lateral load: high
Tyre stress: very high
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: NA
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 210 metres
Pit lane time loss: 12.6 seconds
Fuel consumption: high
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.9 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.7 seconds
SETTING THE SCENE
Having never raced at the modernised Zandvoort track and even having lost substantial practice time to numerous red flags through the weekend, forecasting strategy and race-long performance is very difficult.
Pirelli has brought its hardest compounds for F1’s first visit, which is standard for new venues, and though the rubber cops decent beating around the twisty track and especially along the banked sections, wear is not dire, and a one-stop strategy remains the preference, particularly given the difficulty overtaking.
The soft tyre will therefore be the strategic backbone, being 0.7 seconds quicker than the medium and 1.6 seconds quicker than the hard. Assuming the weather doesn’t heat up dramatically, a soft–medium strategy would be the preferred path to the flag, with the hard appearing only if wear is more severe than expected. Those who start on the medium will be the barometer of the likelihood of the hard compound entering play.
THE FIGHT AT THE FRONT
This will be an undercut race thanks to the short pit lane, and with aerodynamics crucial to performance at Zandvoort, the frontrunners should break away relatively quickly from the midfield, creating an open-canvas pit stop window early, though that gap will likely fill with lapped traffic in the second half of the race.
If Verstappen holds the lead, Red Bull Racing might choose to go aggressive with an early first stop to prevent Hamiton from getting the undercut advantage. It would lock him into a long final stint, but the projected difficulty overtaking works in his favour here.
Mercedes, however, would then be free to try two-stopping Hamilton while leaving Bottas on a one-stop strategy to block Verstappen from doing likewise. A set of soft tyres late in the race on lighter tanks could give him the kind of pace offset necessary to execute a pass around this circuit given the sizeable gaps between the compounds.
If Hamilton takes the lead at the start, then Bottas would be deployed as undercut bait for Verstappen, who would presumably have no choice but to respond to anything but the most aggressively early stop by the Finn to avoid falling to third. Only in the event of Mercedes switching to hards would an aggressively long first stint on soft to facilitate a second stint on mediums make sense for Verstappen, but even then that would be gambling with third place rather than locking in second when Red Bull Racing needs to keep the championship in mind.
This is of course predicated on Bottas holding third at the start, which is by no means a given with Pierre Gasly and the Ferrari drivers surrounding him.
The above all hinges on the timing of safety car interventions and possible red flags, which are surely likely given the number of interruptions the weekend has endured to date — and a badly timed safety car could completely extinguish the tension.
An intervention in the first third of the grand prix, before the pit stop window opens for any strategy, would likely see the field pit for the hard tyre and run to the end of the race in management mode. A little later in the race and even those considering a two-stop strategy might be swung to minimise their time in traffic and commit to one stop.
But a late safety car could add a different dimension to the end of the race. If the midfield remains closely contested, deciding whether to pit for new rubber near the end of a long stint or maintain track position and defend hard to the flag — similar to the end of the Emilia-Romagna and German grands prix last year — could shake up any stalemates in the pack.
If the race is predicated on tyre performance and longevity, a red flag after the first stops would likely neutralise strategy.
OUTSIDE THE TOP 10
The performance of the soft tyre means the midfielders who made Q3 aren’t massively disadvantaged compared to those with free tyre choice outside the top 10, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential gains to be made starting on a harder compound.
Running long and overcutting will get those drivers out of position — in particular Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Perez as well as Yuki Tsunoda — into some clear air at the end of the first stint, which will allow them to exercise some of their superior pace and jump up the order at their own stops.
It would also provide some crucial data on the behaviour of the harder compounds to inform the strategy of their better-placed teammates. For Verstappen this could be fundamental, and likewise Gasly, who could be on for a podium with a strong start from fourth.