Max Verstappen raced to victory at his home Grand Prix following a nailbiting Mercedes assault.
The venue: Zandvoort. A track that last featured on the F1 calendar in 1985 – which also happened to be the legendary Niki Lauda’s last GP win. Needless to say then it was pretty much impossible to predict how this race was going to transpire.
If practice and qualifying served as any form of yardstick, chaos was going to resume its reign of terror as it has so successfully done throughout the year. The Ferrari of Carlos Sainz had a violent off into the barriers triggering the themed concerto of red flags that has, in large parts, dictated the season so far. Then Vettel had an engine failure. This series of events put Lewis Hamilton on the back foot since a combination of red flags, coupled with hydraulic failure from his Merc meant that the Briton just couldn’t get a rhythm going. All the while the 23-year-old Max had relatively smooth sailing much to the enjoyment of his 70,000+ cheering Dutch fans.
And along came qualifying. And with it more crimson flag-waving. Most notably, George Russell looked set to net himself another strong Q3 position, replicating his stellar qualifying at the non-race Spa GP. A combination of strong wind and possibly over-eager throttle application landed him into the barriers with, miraculously, no apparent damage. His teammate, Nicholas Latifi, naturally saw there were precious seconds to be had and in his speedy Quali quest put two wheels on the gravel at turn-in that saw the Williams lose any form of grip. This sent the Canadian propelling backwards towards the safety barrier scrapping any hopes of a strong Williams qualifier.
The inherent problem for many, though, wasn’t speed but rather space since Q1 saw 20 drivers looking to cash in on a flying lap on a short circuit that’s just over four kilometres in length. This saw Sergio Perez in his Red Bull that was arguably the best-suited to the track drop out at Q1. As did Lando Norris – which was quite a shocker. Sebastian Vettel was halted on his flying lap by Nikita Mazepin in the Haas who claimed there was a mix-up with team orders.
This set the table for Max to start on pole, without the aid of the other Red Bull, while Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas qualified in second and third respectively opening a plethora of strategy options for the Mercs. And yet, the combination of the Red Bull’s well-sorted chassis and the talent of Max Verstappen proved to be a bit of a big ask for the Silver Arrows.
Mercedes tried to undercut Max by boxing Hamilton early in the race and while he gained about 1.5 secs in doing so, Red Bull called their bluff. Still, the Dutchman proved out of reach of Hamilton's aggressive pursuit. They say that "if you fail, try and try again". This is exactly what Merc did and again Red Bull responded, and possibly even outfoxed the strategy team at the Merc paddock, by fitting the number 33 Red Bull with the hard compound tyre. At the time, it looked to be the wrong call since it's also the slowest tyre. Considering, however, the number of laps remaining, their strategy surely paid off when Hamilton was quite vocal over the radio as to Merc's questionable tyre calls.
Not even Merc’s attempt to block Max by leaving Bottas out had much of an effect setting the stage for Max to sail to a well-earned victory in front of a roaring home crowd and plumes of orange smoke.
Speaking of Bottas; the future of the Finnish driver looks to be set since F1's worst-kept secret seems to be in the open now. Following stellar performances from the young George Russell, not only in his Williams, but also when he replaced Hamilton at Bahrain when the World Champion tested positive for Covid-19 in 2020, the rumour mill then already churned in the way of Russell moving into the grid's most coveted seat. According to Merc-AMG team principal, Toto Wolff, "Mercedes is just waiting for the signature on the page before they announce their plans for 2022". If that's Russell's signature or that of Bottas reluctantly signing his seat away we don't know. We do, however, expect an announcement even before the Italian GP next week.
So, where’s Bottas going? Well, it looks like uncle Wolff organised him a seat at Ferrari’s junior team, Alfa Romeo replacing his countryman and 2007 World Champion, Kimi Räikkönen, who announced his retirement in the past week.
Then there’s the open seat at Williams and the big question mark as to who will be occupying it… Apparently, Red Bull is trying to organise that for its former driver Alex Albon. But. Williams is essentially 'Merc's junior team' and powertrain client so, naturally, Red Bull is concerned that Merc will play a political hand here. This indicates then that Merc will want a Mercedes-associated driver there. On a scale of likelihood, it makes sense that Nyck de Vries who won the Formula E World Championship in his Mercedes EQ the likely choice – should politics play any part in the decision-making process that is.
And the rumour-mill continues churning....
See you at Monza on 10 - 12 September for more Formula 1 action.