Part motor race, part beach festival, Max Verstappen was the headline act of the Dutch Grand Prix, and the Red Bull Racing driver delivered with a dominant drive from pole to victory to send the already rapturous crowd into delirium.
It was only after the flag that the Dutchman spoke about the weight of expectation generated by the 70,000-strong crowd on his 23-year-old shoulders, but the 132-race veteran showed no signs of it in his driving. At no point through the weekend did he look meaningfully threatened, with only an accidental double upshift and a DRS failure on his final qualifying lap shrinking the gap to Lewis Hamilton in second.
A perfect getaway was all he needed to exercise his pace, which he wielded to dispatch with the array of Mercedes strategic manoeuvres and take the flag a comfortable winner.
But Mercedes undoubtedly left some performance on the table, and a poorly executed weekend strategy-wise meant the team came away from Zandvoort with potential unfulfilled, though it’s debatable whether Verstappen could have been dethroned anyway.
Formula 1’s first visit to Zandvoort in 36 years was a brand-new challenge for teams and drivers, with even those who’d raced on this circuit before its reprofiling in anticipation of F1’s return finding the challenge renovated.
In particular the exaggerated banking for the first, third and last turns created a new element to challenge the cars in particular. F1 simply doesn’t feature this kind of banking — turns three and 14 were twice as steep as the Indianapolis oval, for example — so picking lines and set-ups to maximise performance through these sections of an already difficult, sweeping circuit was crucial to the weekend result.
That was made difficult by the number of interruptions to the three practice sessions. The majority of FP1 was lost to Sebastian Vettel’s breakdown at pit exit, FP2 was suspended twice and FP3 paused once, curtailing crucial practice time.
Hamilton lost out particularly badly with an oil system problem at the beginning of FP2, leaving him with just three laps in the most important practice hour of the weekend. It left him on the back foot for the duration, with knock-on effects right through the race to his tyre choice for the final stint.
The tyres performed well despite the unique dynamics of this circuit, with all three compounds used extensively through the race despite concerns the C1 hard tyre was too hard for the heavily loaded but only moderately abrasive track, but on a slightly warmer Sunday it came into its own and even played a role in securing Verstappen victory.
THE RACE-WINNING MOVE
Verstappen’s race was straightforward enough, the Dutchman and his Red Bull Racing team needing only to respond the threats as they came rather than proactively take the race on once he got away from pole cleanly and led into the first turn.
Pulling away to an almost four-second lead in the first stint ensured he stayed out of undercut range, and he could comfortably cover Hamilton at their stops on laps 20–21.
He did likewise easily when Hamilton stopped on lap 39, in fact extending his lead thanks to the Briton being dropped into lapped traffic.
With the stops done, Verstappen held the gap at around three seconds, the space between them only shrinking between laps 50 and 60 as they lapped more backmarkers, to break Hamilton’s challenge and take the flag.
MERCEDES LACKED EXECUTION
Verstappen undoubtedly had the car beneath him to get the job done, but Mercedes’s execution meant he dealt with less pressure than he might otherwise have needed to see off.
Hamilton’s first stop was almost a second slower than Verstappen’s reply on the following lap. The Dutchman rejoined with almost two seconds still in hand, but it was an opportunity lost to apply some extra pressure into the first sector.
But if Mercedes lost the race, it was in the middle stint. The team had correctly left Valtteri Bottas out on the slower one-stop strategy to act as a block on Verstappen’s progress, and for around a lap the tactic worked. Verstappen got caught in the Finn’s dirty air, and Hamilton closed right in for what was momentarily shaping up as a three-way scrap.
If Mercedes were minded to be particularly aggressive, it could have pitted Hamilton here, at the end of lap 30, barely 10 laps into the middle stint. He had just cleared Leclerc from his pit window, so would have lost no places, and it would have applied pressure on Verstappen to either cover the following lap, running the high risk of being undercut, or convert to a one-stop race with a long last stint.
Mercedes used the same tactics in Barcelona, albeit with a decisive car advantage, to great success.
However, such a call would have left Hamilton with 42 laps to run to the finish, which Mercedes figured was too great a stretch for the medium compound. It had a set of hard tyres, but the disrupted practice running meant it undertook no serious simulation with the C1, and the strategy team had resolved not to use them for the lack of data. There were very few drivers using the hard on track at that time to convince the team otherwise.
So Hamilton stuck it out and followed Verstappen past Bottas at the start of lap 31.
But the opportunity wasn’t yet lost. Until lap 37 Hamilton kept himself in undercut range but without pulling the trigger. Pitting on any one of those laps could have led to a successful undercut, but Mercedes was waiting to clear the lapped Daniel Ricciardo, George Russell and Lance Stroll before pitting.
But by the time the pit window began to open — and it was opening for Verstappen too — the Dutchman started to break away to protect himself. The gap almost doubled to more than three seconds in the three laps to lap 40, when Hamilton was called in. The undercut was never likely — it hadn’t worked the first time around with a similar gap — and Hamilton dropped right into the slower traffic anyway, slowing his out lap and neutralising the strategy.
Worse was that Mercedes expected Red Bull Racing to likewise avoid the hard compound — it had hoped Verstappen would be forced to use the more delicate soft compound of a long final stint. Instead the Dutchman went for the C1, having seen it used successfully by several cars at that point, and it performed more than well enough, effectively ending the duel.
Would the opportunity to have used the hard tyre during practice have changed Mercedes’s thinking on the timing of its last stint and given it a better chance of taking the lead?
There was a final opportunity for Mercedes to roll the dice: on those laps Verstappen suffered in traffic the chance was there for a Hail Mary late stop for softs to chase down the lead, using the slower cars to prevent the Dutchman from covering. Instead it banked a point for fastest lap to limit the damage, capping off an uncreative afternoon.
THE SECOND-DRIVER DEPLOYMENT
The Dutch Grand Prix was another in which the role of the second driver came to the fore, albeit with varying success. While Verstappen ultimately had the pace to battle without Sergio Perez in the mix, the fact the Mexican didn’t qualify near the front would have been a substantial disadvantage had Mercedes been quicker or even simply more aggressive with strategy.
It’s worth adding Red Bull Racing’s role in Perez’s lowly qualifying result. The team left it so late to send him out for his final Q1 lap that any traffic was likely to have him miss the flag, as was ultimately the case.
That said, Perez did play a minor but meaningful role with the hard tyre in his first stint. Although used for only eight laps, the last of which was with a stint-ending flat spot, it provided a glimpse of the C1’s performance, feeding into the choice to put Verstappen on the hard tyre at the end of the race.
His recovery was strong enough, the team going for the alternative medium–soft — originally hard–soft—strategy to overcut the midfield and then pick off those in the lower top 10 on older, harder tyres late in the race to finish eighth.
Valtteri Bottas was quick enough in qualifying to have a higher profile race role, blocking Verstappen before taking his first stop. His defence didn’t last long, but his soft tyres were badly worn by the time the Dutchman go through at the end of lap 30.
And while the headlines after the race were that Bottas was off the pace of the leader — at least a little unfair given he made only one true stop and so had to conserve more rubber — he still finished third to extend Mercedes’s lead in the constructors title, comfortably acquitting his role given the drivers championship tilt has long been off the cards.
BATTLE OF TRACK POSITION
Pierre Gasly was comfortably ahead of the midfield all weekend, qualifying and finishing fourth, but the quality of his race drive in particular ought to have made him driver of the day. His first stop came early, on lap 24, to ensure the pursuing Charles Leclerc couldn’t undercut him, but it was a switch to the medium tyre, which wasn’t thought to be durable enough to make it to the end form there — Hamilton had stopped only four laps earlier in a definite move towards two stops.
He ran a full 46 laps on the medium compound, keeping Leclerc at bay for much of the second half of the race. The Monegasque took the more durable hard at lap 36 so he could push harder for longer, but the AlphaTauri’s defensive drive was impeccable, the team having backed its driver and used the circuit to its advantage.
NORRIS RECOVERS WITH ALTERNATIVE STRATEGY
Lando Norris was one of the surprisingly few drivers outside the top 10 to start on a tyre other than the soft. The Briton took the medium from 13th, which allowed him to jump up the order once those ahead of him on softs made their earlier first stop, thereby winning himself some clear air.
His pit stop dropped him into a battle with teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who had been one of those caught up in the earlier stops. They duelled, but Norris was faster on his newer rubber and was ordered through to try to chase down the Alpine drivers. he was ultimately unsuccessful and finished 10th, one place ahead of Ricciardo.
Ricciardo acknowledged he’d played the team game but sounded unhappy after the race to learn nothing had been gained by the team telling him to give up track position.