‘The smell of rubber and melting asphalt / I cheer when Max passes one again’
‘His overtaking is special / He is a boss, a wonder of the world’
As grateful as Max Verstappen has been for the unparalleled devotion his Dutch compatriots have demonstrated throughout a career in Formula 1 that has already spanned almost a third of his life, the 23-year-old has been a picture of professionalism in pursuit of a world championship title in this first season where it has been a realistic possibility.
Whereas the likes of champions such as Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and even Lewis Hamilton actively fed off the energy of their home fans to spur them to even greater heights behind the wheel, nothing could distract the Dutch Grand Prix pole-winner from his mission before him.
“I’ve never seen a nation get behind a driver in this manner,” Verstappen’s team principal Christian Horner remarked afterwards.
“From the moment we’ve arrived, the music’s been going, the build up, the intensity… and the one person that hasn’t felt it has been Max. He’s focused on his own job. He’s gone about his business in exactly the same way as he does at other races.”
That was essential, as Verstappen could ill-afford to allow his focus to waver as he withstood a barrage of attacks from the two Mercedes drivers over 72 laps on his own.
With Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez starting from the pit lane after failing to progress beyond Q1, all that Verstappen had to help him beat the Mercedes pair behind were his own driving skills.
And 70,000 roaring fans.
As the flare smoke rose around the circuit, so did the tensions. The 18 drivers left on the grid – Nicholas Latifi also started from the pits – faced a relatively short run down to Tarzan for the first grand prix start at Zandvoort for 36 years.
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Verstappen knew that if fellow front row starter Lewis Hamilton made a good enough start there was enough room for him to potentially pass on either side. But when the lights went out, Hamilton could only watch as the Red Bull sprinted out to cover the inside before they had even reached the braking zone for the first corner. So good was Verstappen’s start, he was already four car lengths in front of the championship leader as he accelerated out of Tarzan.
The front of the field remained in grid order as they charged through Gerlach and around the banked Hugenholtz for the first time in anger. Verstappen led Hamilton with Valtteri Bottas in third, with Pierre Gasly ahead of the two Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr.
Behind them, the action was far less orderly. Fernando Alonso went from being squeezed by Esteban Ocon on the exit of turn one – oblivious of his team mate’s proximity – to running a wall-of-death around the outside of Hugenholtz to try and pass both Ocon and Antonio Giovinazzi, who had qualified an impressive seventh in the Alfa Romeo. But that was only the start of the drama, as Ocon later described.
“It was also quite close for both of us in the run-up to when we overtook Giovinazzi on the outside of turn six and entering seven,” Ocon said. “We both hit a bump and Fernando almost lost it, we were side-by-side. So it was quite a fun battle.”
While the three managed to avoid damaging each other in the scrap, the same could not be said for the two Haas drivers Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin. With the relationship between the two rookies having deteriorated dramatically after a disagreement in qualifying the day before, Mazepin was determined to pass Schumacher on the opening lap and went virtually off the track as the pair approached Scheivlak as he looked to pass before eventually diving by his team mate into Masterbocht.
Schumacher held onto the rear of Mazepin’s car and used his slipstream to get a good run as they rounded the banked final corner. But when he pulled out to pass along the pit straight, Mazepin aggressively covered the inside, leading to the inevitable contact which left Schumacher with a wounded front wing.
“I think you saw what he still thinks about [qualifying] and about the whole situation,” Schumacher later theorised, “because I think otherwise you don’t react the way he did in this race today.”
As Schumacher pitted for repairs, Mazepin’s mirrors were quickly filled by Perez, who had taken just four laps to catch the Haas from the pits. As Perez drove up to the back of the Haas into the braking zone for Tarzan at the start of lap five, he locked up his right-front heavily enough, that for once the smoke in the air was grey instead of the familiar orange from the many flares set off by the Dutch fans around the circuit.
With his hard tyres now completely wrecked with no hope of lasting the required distance to make their strategy work, Perez was forced to pit at the end of lap eight, further reinforcing himself as a non-factor for Red Bull as far as their battle with Mercedes would go that afternoon.
Not that Verstappen would likely be concerned. Having successfully navigated the most dangerous phase of the race with his lead intact, he was now sitting around three seconds ahead of Hamilton, lapping in the 1’15s. But Red Bull were wary when Hamilton suddenly picked up the pace.
“Okay Max, Hamilton’s potentially switching to a two-stop,” Verstappen was informed by race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase. “Looks like he’s been given a hurry-up.”
Red Bull’s hunch was correct, as Hamilton was eventually the first driver on soft tyres to make an intended pit stop at the end of the 20th lap, moving onto the medium rubber which prior running indicated the Mercedes preferred.
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Verstappen was immediately called in to do the same the very next lap. But while Red Bull had successfully defended his lead, Hamilton had cut his lead from 3.5 seconds to less than two by getting onto fresher rubber first.
Now that Mercedes began to exercise their strength in numbers, keeping race leader Bottas out for an extended opening stint. But while the Verstappen fans in the stands cheered their man as he began to eat away at the gap to Bottas ahead, they were now acutely conscious of how much closer Hamilton now was to him than at any other time in the race.
It took just eight laps for Verstappen to catch the back of Bottas, but any hopes Mercedes had of him being a significant roadblock were quickly dashed.
While Bottas was demonstrating his worth to Mercedes it was ironic that Hamilton lost time behind the driver widely expected to replace his current team mate next year, George Russell. The Williams driver exited the pit lane directly in front of Hamilton, costing him a crucial second of time to Verstappen.
As Bottas rounded the final corner, Verstappen was already tucked up under his rear wing, making any effort to try and defend almost futile as Verstappen used DRS to breeze back into the lead as his army of cheerleaders bellowed in approval in the stands. As a thank you for his efforts, Bottas was rewarded with a fresh set of mediums the following lap.
With Bottas now solidly on course for a one-stop, Mercedes could not afford for him to lose too much time to the leading duo if they were to try and goad Red Bull into an early second stop and bring their second car back into play.
Back in the pack, Sebastian Vettel in the Aston Martin was racing with Robert Kubica – the one-time grand prix winner had been called back into action at very short notice when Kimi Raikkonen tested positive for Covid-19. Vettel attempted a dive up the inside on the Hugenholtz banking, but lost control and spun right in the path of Bottas who was attempting to lap them behind. Bottas lost over a second-and-a-half to the leaders as he took avoiding action, likely ensuring he would play no further part in the contest between Verstappen and Hamilton ahead.
It did not take long until Mercedes brought Hamilton in for a second attempt at ‘undercutting’ Red Bull. The theory was sound: Hamilton has a further set of medium tyres, unlike Verstappen, who would have to go back onto softs or risk a set of hards which the teams had little experience of running at Zandvoort.
But when Hamilton rejoined the fray after pitting for a second time at the end of lap 39, he was unimpressed to find a trio of lapped cars sitting directly in front of him. “Why would you pit me with these guys, man?” he lamented.
It was little surprise when, again, Verstappen pitted immediately in response. He was able to rejoin on a new set of hards comfortably ahead, only this time with his lead intact, too. Despite the theoretical performance advantage offered by the mediums that Hamilton was on, he made it clear on the radio he had doubts over whether he could take this set of tyres until the end of the race.
If any of the fans watching around the circuit assumed that their favourite driver was now home and dry, their nerves would likely have flared when Hamilton began to close the gap to within just under two seconds of the leader with less than 20 laps remaining.
But as has been seen often this season, Verstappen has an ability to draw even more speed out of the RB16B when it is most needed. As Christian Horner noted after the race, Red Bull enjoyed a fractional performance advantage at Zandvoort.
“It’s still very, very tight with Mercedes, particularly with Lewis, but we just seem to have a tenth, I would say, in hand, maybe two, that Max is able to use when he needed to build up a three-second gap.”
As Verstappen seemingly consolidated his control of the race out front, team mate Perez had managed to work his way up to seventh before making his second stop on lap 48. It was not long before he passed Daniel Ricciardo for tenth place with a beautiful-judged move around the outside at Tarzan, before setting his sights on the second McLaren of Lando Norris ahead.
Perez caught Norris on lap 66 and tried a similar move to the outside of the first turn. But just as in Austria, Norris refused to yield to the Red Bull around the outside and tried to squeeze him out at corner exit. The pair collided, jolting Norris hard enough for him to lose his footing on the pedals in the cockpit and allowing Perez to take the position, his Red Bull bearing the scars of contact.
With Bottas falling further adrift with every lap and Hamilton unable to break through into DRS range of Verstappen, it seemed like it would now take a Safety Car intervention or a stroke of misfortune for Hamilton to avoid losing both the race and the championship lead to his rival.
As reality finally dawned on Mercedes that they just could not beat Verstappen and Red Bull on the form they had shown all weekend, attention turned to securing the bonus point for fastest lap of the race. After a rather awkward moment where Bottas briefly claimed the fastest lap inadvertently, Hamilton eventually took the honour on the final lap.
That the return of the Dutch Grand Prix had proven to be somewhat less eventful than many had anticipated mattered little to the 70,000 fans which had created the most raucous and unparalleled atmospheres the sport had ever witnessed for a single race. Verstappen was able to enjoy the crazed cacophony as he rounded the Hans Ernst Bocht for the final time, before scaling the banking and taking the chequered flag to realise the greatest moment in the history of motorsport in the Netherlands.
Despite Hamilton securing the fastest lap on the final tour, the points swing was enough for him to lose his place at the top of the standings. Verstappen welcomed the return of the lead of the drivers’ championship to his possession as if he was bemused that it was ever taken from him to begin with.
“What was crucial today was, first of all, the start and then throughout the race, just managing that gap that they couldn’t undercut us,” he said. “But it’s an incredible feeling, of course, to win in front of the fans.”
Hamilton had to accept that no matter what they tried, Mercedes just could not have overcome Verstappen and Red Bull on what was very much their day.
“I think today we probably needed everything to be perfect, to even have the slightest chance of getting past them through strategy,” he admitted.
Bottas took his customary third place and would be forgiven for wondering if he may ever step foot on the middle step of the podium again, such is the prowess of the two championship contenders and the near-certainty this is his last season in a Mercedes.
Pierre Gasly’s lonely race to fourth completely undersold just what a complete and flawless race weekend he had put together over the three days at Zandvoort. Remarking after the race that he had enjoyed so much performance, the team had asked him to slow down for fear he had been pushing too hard on his tyres.
Leclerc took fifth for Ferrari in a weekend that saw them take strong points from rivals McLaren. Fernando Alonso demonstrated his unquestioned racecraft once more by snatching sixth from Carlos Sainz Jnr on the final lap of the race, though he had come close to crashing his Alpine at turn three a few laps earlier.
Perez took the chequered flag in eighth place after a race where he’d come back from a pit lane start with no Safety Car interventions to aid his recovery through the field. But he was understandably frustrated with how another weekend had been unnecessarily compromised on Saturday, and compounded by his error early in the race.
Esteban Ocon secured another double points finish for Alpine in ninth, with Norris taking the final point after starting from 13th on the grid.
Verstappen’s most successful season of his career so far has also proved to be his most challenging. The heavy setbacks of Silverstone and the Hungaroring robbed him of the championship lead he had so richly earned, but thanks in no small part to a laser-focus on the job in hand, Verstappen has emerged from the summer break with a perfect record of wins and pole positions so far to retake his position at the top of the table.
Prevailing in a season-long battle over Hamilton was always going to involve intense adversity, and with Red Bull expecting that Mercedes will hold the advantage in the next two rounds at Monza and Sochi, there’s plenty more of that to come for the championship leader in a fight which is far from over.
But should he manage to be victorious when the final chequered flag falls in December, it will only enhance his mythical standing in the eyes of his Dutch supporters beyond what he’s already held in.
Then we can expect to see far more than just pop songs named in his honour.