ZANDVOORT, Netherlands — The air was thick with orange smoke and a techno beat as Max Verstappen completed his victory lap at Zandvoort. The three-day party on the Dutch coast, which got underway the moment the first car left the pits on Friday morning, had reached its climax, with 70,000 people celebrating the first Dutch home victory in Formula One.
Given the hype surrounding Verstappen in the build-up to the grand prix — the first to be held in the Netherlands since 1985 — it seemed unimaginable that anyone other than the Dutchman would win on Sunday. But, by its own admission, Mercedes made it much easier for Verstappen than it needed to be.
Although Red Bull undoubtedly held a pace advantage at Zandvoort, Mercedes had the strategic upper hand by virtue of having two cars in the fight at the front compared to Verstappen’s lone Red Bull. Verstappen’s teammate, Sergio Perez, was knocked out in the first stage of qualifying on Saturday, leading to a pit lane start when the team changed components on his car, while Mercedes lined up with Lewis Hamilton in second on the grid and Valtteri Bottas in third.
Plan A for Hamilton and Mercedes would have been to pass Verstappen into Turn 1 and try to control the race from the front, but once Verstappen retained his lead into the first corner, Mercedes had to try and out-think its rival from the pit wall. Its strategists put Hamilton on a two-stop strategy and Bottas on a countering one-stop, with the aim of catching Verstappen somewhere in between. But the execution of Mercedes’ plan ultimately lacked the finesse it required to succeed.
A slow first pit stop for Hamilton blunted the first attempt to take the lead on Lap 21 and a poorly timed second stop, which delivered Hamilton into backmarker traffic and saw Red Bull counter with a pit stop of its own, handed victory to Red Bull and Verstappen.
In the closing stages of the race, the world champions were left fighting among themselves, as Bottas, who is expected to be dropped for Williams’ George Russell next year, went rogue with a fastest lap attempt that could have snatched a crucial championship point from Hamilton.
Hamilton rectified the situation by pitting a third time and securing the fastest lap for himself, but the situation was messy and could have been disastrous had the pit stop gone wrong as it did, for example, on Bottas’ car in Monaco.
The final count of points shows Mercedes’ two drivers outscored Verstappen and Perez, who finished eighth, by five, extending the team’s lead in the constructors’ championship, but the result in Zandvoort was a stark reminder that, on current form, Verstappen and Red Bull are the better all-round package.
Did Mercedes throw the race away at the second pit stop?
Perhaps the most baffling strategy decision from Mercedes was the timing of Hamilton’s second stop. Just a handful of laps earlier he appeared to be in a better position to undercut Verstappen, but Mercedes passed it up with concerns about the amount of laps left to run on a single set of tyres, and then when the team did pit it dropped Hamilton into traffic that took him several corners to clear.
The timing of the pit call was partly rooted in the lack of track time in Friday practice, which meant the teams did not have any reliable data on the hard tyre. As a result, Mercedes decided from the start of the race that it would not use the hard compound — unless it proved rapid on another car during the race — and it assumed Red Bull would take the same approach.
By pitting Hamilton when it did, Mercedes hoped to force Red Bull onto a long stint on the softs knowing that Verstappen did not have the option of fitting a second set of mediums as it had done. But Red Bull, confident in Verstappen’s ability on all three tyre compounds, called the bluff, covered off Hamilton’s stop and fitted hard tyres that performed well until the chequered flag.
“In terms of the strategy we must say that probably 50 percent of the race was probably lost in qualifying and the start,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. “They just had tremendous pace I think if we would have been ahead, emphasis on would have been, I think we would have had the pace to but it was important to take some risks also.
“We didn’t think they would take the hard [tyre at the second stop]. That was a bit of an uncharted territory and our thought was to push them into an early second stop on softs that could have given us a chance at the end. That’s why we weren’t particularly bothered about where we would come out [in terms of traffic]. They took the hard, they risked a bit and they won the race.”
But even if the strategy had worked out, Verstappen still looked comfortably faster than Hamilton throughout the weekend. He secured pole position by just 0.038s, but Mercedes’ engineers believe the gap would have been closer to 0.2s had it not been for a mistake by Verstappen out of Turn 3 and his DRS failing to open on the run to the flag.
Mercedes had the potential to put extra pressure on Red Bull with a well-executed strategy, but this was still Verstappen’s race to lose and he showed no signs of doing that from the moment he led away from pole position.
With victory, Verstappen retook the lead of the championship by three points with nine races left to run, begging the question of whether the championship is now also Verstappen’s to lose?
“Well I’m giving it everything, we’re giving it absolutely everything, even since the first race these guys have had such a strong car all year and we’re trying as hard as we can,” Hamilton said. “But yeah we had a couple of races where it looked like we just about were on par or just slightly ahead but there’s been only a couple of those and then took a big leap and it’s been difficult.
“There’s nothing really more I can say, we just have to keep our heads down, keep pushing, we are ahead in the team championship, which is great, but of course we need to pick up some speed if we want to win races in the future.”
However, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner believes the layout of the next two tracks, Monza and Sochi, will favour Mercedes.
“Their car and engine package has always historically been very strong at those circuits and they have been weaker venues for us,” Horner said. “So I expect them to have the advantage at the next two, but thereafter it should be nip and tuck, I would certainly hope.
“The next two weekends for us are about trying to limit the damage as much as we can and extract from the car as much as we can.”
Was Bottas out to prove a point with fastest lap?
It’s been clear for several races that Bottas has been moved into a support role for Hamilton at Mercedes this year, but that dynamic is going to be tested in the remaining races as it became clear over the Dutch Grand Prix weekend that Bottas will be replaced at Mercedes next year. The announcement of George Russell as Hamilton’s teammate in 2022 is expected imminently, and Bottas, who is expected to switch to Alfa Romeo, is understood to already know his fate for next season.
In Zandvoort, Bottas was put on a one-stop strategy to try to hold up Verstappen at a crucial point in the race and help Hamilton, but the plan fell flat when Bottas made a mistake on Lap 31 that compromised his run onto the pit straight and presented Verstappen with an easy overtaking opportunity. It was clear that Bottas’ race was being used to create a potential headache for Red Bull and it was also clear he was never truly in contention for the win. Which made it all the more interesting when he took the fastest lap from Hamilton towards the end of the race.
Bottas started experiencing a worrying vibration from his tyres at the end of his second stint, which led Mercedes to pit him on Lap 67 of 72 to ensure it didn’t risk a failure. That late stop presented Bottas with an opportunity to use his fresh tyres to claim the fastest lap from Hamilton (and the championship point that goes with it), and he did just that on his first flying lap out of the pits.
Mercedes’ pit wall radioed Bottas to tell him to slow down, which he did in the final sector, setting a final sector time that was 0.8s slower than he had on his previous lap but an overall lap time that was still 0.6s faster than Hamilton’s previous effort. Hamilton then had to make a pit stop of his own to reclaim the point, which he did by a whopping 1.5s, but it risked a mistake from the pit crew and added to the stress on the Mercedes pit wall.
“Yeah, it was a bit cheeky but understandable,” Wolff said after the race. “Valtteri is always on the receiving end because this championship is so tight. He lifted off massively in the last sector and it was clear that Lewis would do the quickest lap and Valtteri knew about it. Lewis in his fight for the championship got the point and it’s all good.
“It couldn’t have ended up in a loss of a point for Lewis. It would have also been not right because he had fastest lap until then. But you have to understand at that point the certain degree of frustration from Valtteri and in the end everything is good. We are going to talk about it but in the most amicable and professional way. But I can certainly relate to the situation.”
Bottas shrugged the situation off, saying he knew Hamilton would be able to pit and set a fastest lap of his own. “To be honest, there was quite a big gap ahead, quite a big gap behind, so, for safety reasons, it was a good thing to stop,” he said. “I think I could have made it to the end faster without stopping, but the final position was the same, so it was the safer option to stop at the end. I thought initially we were stopping for the fastest lap, but then Lewis too had a gap and he stopped.
“I was pushing on the first lap on sector one and sector two, like flat out, but then the team asked me to slow down at the end of the lap, so I was just playing around, really, because Lewis needed that extra point more than me, he’s fighting for the driver’s championship and as a team we’re trying to get maximum points, so that’s how it is.”
On the evidence of recent races, Hamilton will need everything to go his way to beat Verstappen, which makes the actions of Bottas in Zandvoort all the more interesting for the title fight.