The orange flares were back this week in Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix, the home race of Max Verstappen. After a couple of rough practices, Verstappen settled in during qualifying, just stealing pole away from Charles Leclerc at the narrow, twisty track.
On race day, the strategies and lead changes took just as many turns. All tire compounds functioned well and there were multiple crucially-timed safety cars that kept the teams busy scheming. Interestingly, Ferrari seemed mostly like an afterthought despite their continued success in qualifying. It was Mercedes that took the fight to Verstappen, but in the end, there is always Max.
Immediate reaction: Chaos!
It looked like we were going to end up with Max having to chase down Lewis Hamilton at the end of the race due to different pit strategies, then chaos. The last 30 laps of the GP saw several yellow flags, virtual safety cars, and full safety cars which gave us all kinds of entertainment. Do you take tires? Which compound should you be on? Should one, both, or neither car(s) pit? The end of the race saw the top teams tasked with answering all of those questions, some of the better than others. In the end, Max is still inevitable and Mercedes is continuing to show they are a threat to Ferrari.
Driver of the race: Max, I guess?
This week was actually quite tough because there was no one who made a massive drive of any kind or had any spectacular moves that we saw. So I guess we give it to the man that ran a clean race, may have had the best move of the race when he got the overtake on Lewis when they went green for the last time on lap 60, and got a win in his home country.
Moment of the race: Tsunoda stops on lap 48
Yuki Tsunoda first stopped his car on the track on lap 42 after coming out of the pits and claiming he had a loose wheel. He was then instructed to re-fire the car, and bring it to pit lane. They proceeded to re-tighten his belts and change out the mediums they just put on for a fresh pair of softs only for him to end up stopping the car on track again on lap 48. These events were the start of the strategic chaos that would carry us to the end of the race and provide us with lots of entertainment that some races lack in the late stages.
Thoughts moving forward: Mercedes vs. Ferrari
I’ve been talking about this for a while now as a question, but it’s no longer a question: the most interesting race the rest of this season is going to be Mercedes vs. Ferrari in the Constructor’s Cup. Mercedes and their consistency are 30 points behind Ferrari right now despite their early season lead. The last four GPs, Mercedes has managed to whittle the gap down by 36 points and that includes a Belgian GP where Lewis retired early due to an accident.
Just Ferrari things: They forgot one
I don’t entirely understand how the pit calls work internally but no matter who messed up, once again, Ferrari messed up. On lap 15, Carlos Sainz was called to the pits to put on medium compound tires and they just forgot the left rear (???) or took it to the wrong spot in the pit stall (???). The result was a stop that should’ve been less than 3 seconds ended up taking 12.7 seconds, losing him precious time on the track. His troubles in the pits were not over, however; he would later be penalized five seconds for an unsafe release when he came out of his box slowly, nearly causing a collision with Fernando Alonso.
This was a tremendously exciting race! It initially looked like it might not be, since Max Verstappen took pole position and the track makes it difficult to pass. Some differences in tire strategy cycled him out of the lead at times, but I always kind of expected he would end up at the front, especially after a bizarre issue with Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri allowed Verstappen to pit under a virtual safety car and retain the lead. Ultimately, he did have to work a tiny bit for the win — passing Lewis Hamilton, who was on cold, used tires — but they once again looked like the best team, car, and driver. The final third of the race contained enough drama and blunders to keep fans on the edges of their seats despite Verstappen coming out on top.
Driver of the race
Although Verstappen deserves driver of the race, I think I have to make this a team of the race award. With all the safety cars and chaos throwing every strategist’s plans out the window, team decisions meant every bit as much as the driver’s performance this week. We saw Ferrari and Mercedes both make mistakes, but Red Bull never flinch. Their pit stops are sound, their decisions solid, and the car goes ridiculously fast. While every other team is game planning around the shark in the water with them, Red Bull are free to just be the shark. When was the last time we saw Red Bull actually make a mistake, not counting bad luck or an on track crash? It’s been a long, long time — especially when compared to other top teams.
Moment of the race
Ferrari are sending everyone at Mercedes money for an espresso right now because, for once, we aren’t really talking about them. They did make mistakes — being unprepared with tires for Carlos Sainz’ first pit stop and leaving equipment in the way of Checo Pérez, being penalized again for an unsafe release in one of Sainz’ other stops — but Mercedes potentially lost a win for Hamilton so that’s where our focus goes.
After Valtteri Bottas’ engine failed and brought out a safety car, Verstappen pitted from the lead for new, soft tires. Mercedes left Hamilton out on medium tires… but they brought George Russell in. So instead of Russell trying to fend off Verstappen while Hamilton warmed up his tires, Verstappen was right on Hamilton’s tail and everyone had newer, faster tires. He quickly fell to fourth and dragged his team over the radio for the decision. It reminded me of Ferrari kneecapping Charles Leclerc at Silverstone, pitting only Sainz to avoid attempting a double stack. Not sure that’s a comparison Mercedes would like to invite.
Thoughts moving forward
With eight races left in the F1 season, there are several storylines to follow each week. I will be, frankly, shocked if Verstappen does not match or crush the record for most wins in a season. Will Hamilton fail to win a race for the first year in his career? Will Ferrari win again? Will Ferrari look beaten by Mercedes the rest of the year, or was that just a function of the track in Zandvoort? Will F1 fans know the Dutch national anthem by the end of November? And who will be driving where in 2023? A lot of answers to come.