The Dutch Grand Prix couldn’t have gone any better for Max Verstappen and his legion home fans on a weekend Mercedes began the painful process of renewing its driver line-up.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
The Dutch Grand Prix may always have been in Max Verstappen’s destiny.
Revived after 36 years, it exists only because of the man the Dutch call ‘Super Max’, whose prodigious talent has ignited a supporter base so fierce that it rivals the renowned passion of the Ferrari tifosi or the German Michael Schumacher diehards of the 2000s.
The well-travelled ‘orange army’ has already made successes of races all over Europe as Verstappen’s star has risen; now Circuit Zandvoort, near Amsterdam, is reaping the rewards of having a home-grown hero.
And from the moment Verstappen set foot on the circuit for his Thursday track walk, complete with standing ovations from the already massing crowd that would swell to a sold-out 70,000 people, victory at home seemed the only possible outcome.
Zandvoort’s fast bends and rolling undulation seemed built for the Red Bull Racing car, which powered around the renovated circuit as if on rails. Yes, Mercedes lost a full hour of crucial practice to a broken engine, but Hamilton’s car was recalcitrant all weekend long regardless, distrustful of the unusual steep banking.
In the end Verstappen had enough pace in hand to swat away every challenge Mercedes threw at him, and in a haze of orange smoke and to the thunderous approval of the audience he soaked in the feeling of his first home victory.
“The expectations were very high coming into the weekend and it’s never easy to fulfil that, but the whole crowd has been incredible, and I am so happy to win here,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before in my life.”
But the victory will quickly fade from memory as just one of 21 chapters in the 2021 season, and already it has been overshadowed by Mercedes’s decision to send Valtteri Bottas packing for Alfa Romeo in favour of rising star George Russell.
Bottas has long been behind the ferocious title pace set by Verstappen and Hamilton, while heir apparent Russell, in the final year of his Williams apprenticeship, is increasingly frequently outperforming his backmarking machinery.
Bottas’s contribution to Mercedes cannot be understated. His super single-lap speed and strong technical feedback have kept Hamilton and the car sharp. Crucially, his apolitical demeanour has kept the team harmonious after its high-profile boilovers in the preceding Lewis Hamilton-Nico Rosberg era.
“He has been the best teammate I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” Hamilton said, while team boss Toto Wolff added: “Valtteri has done a fantastic job over the past five seasons, and he has made an essential contribution to our success and to our growth.”
But with Hamilton contracted for only two more seasons and with no guarantee he wants to extend, Mercedes had no choice but to commit to the future.
And that could well cause problems. Russell will arrive not supplementary to Hamilton but as his replacement, and while the politically savvy young Briton will surely play the team game, before long his own competitive desire will overpower the requirement to support his teammate.
“For sure he will make it very difficult for Lewis,” Verstappen teased. “The more experience you gain in that car and the more you get accustomed to it within the team, naturally you’re going to be becoming faster.”
The difference between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes’s philosophies is clear: Verstappen, who has for years enjoyed a team built exclusively for him, leads the drivers championship with an arguably faster car, yet Mercedes extended its advantage in the constructors standings in the Netherlands.
Hamilton and Russell, an undoubtedly stronger line-up, are another step in that direction. It’s up to Mercedes to ensure it’s not a step too far.