Over the first 36 world championship seasons in Formula 1’s history, the Netherlands held a grand prix around the demanding beachside circuit of Zandvoort in all but six of them. Then the track disappeared from the calendar for the next three decades.Max Verstappen had joined that club, it took five more years before the Zandvoort track returned to the championship so he could enjoy a home grand prix of his own.
Since 2021, the now-twice world champion has enjoyed a run of success in his home race like very few drivers have ever had. In every competitive session – qualifying and race – the Red Bull driver had been first in both years. So it was little surprise, then, when Verstappen arrived to a track where he has been unbeatable in a car that has never lost a race and promptly stuck it on pole by half a second to send the oranje-clad fans home happy on Saturday evening.
Verstappen returned from the summer break not just with a virtually unassailable lead in the drivers’ standings already, an eight-race winning streak under his belt and a chance to match Red Bull’s other dominant champion, Sebastian Vettel, with a ninth in front of over 100,000 Dutch fans – including King Willem-Alexander and the royal family.
There was already enough pressure on car number one to deliver even in the best of conditions, but as he led the field away from the grid on the formation lap, Verstappen quickly realised that his afternoon was about to get far more stressful.
“It’s starting to rain a bit, here.”
What had started as a 40% risk of rain before the weekend and had grown to a 70% chance before the race was now setting alarms ringing in all 10 team garages. Not that the teams themselves needed to consult the radar – they could simply step into the pit lane and feel the precipitation for themselves. As the cars headed off it was now no longer a question of whether it would rain, but when it would stop.
Still, the track was far too dry for anyone to consider intermediates before the race start, so Verstappen duly lined up on pole position with Lando Norris slotting into place alongside him. The second row belonged to George Russell and the Williams of Alexander Albon, with Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jnr ahead of Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.
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As the lights went out, Verstappen hit all of his marks perfectly to pull away from Norris and take his line into turn one as he pleased. Rounding the banked Hugenholtzbocht corner for the first time, Alonso decided passing Albon for fourth was much too simple and dived by Russell at the same time to jump two places to fifth.
Halfway around the opening lap, the track was already treacherous. The spectators packed into the arena grandstands of turns 11 and 12 watched as a field of 20 Formula 1 cars had to gently tiptoe their way around the tightest turn on the circuit, Charles Leclerc making contact with Oscar Piastri as they rounded the corner. The following 13th turn was even wetter and now drivers had less than 10 seconds to make a crucial choice: pit and gamble for intermediates, or stay out and gamble that the rain could ease. Either way, they would be taking a risk.
“It’s a lot of rain, mate,” Verstappen informed race engineer Giampiero Lambiase of what was blatantly clear from the TV images.
“You need to call, Max,” Lambiase stressed. “It’s only going to be short-lived. If you can live with it, stay out.”
So he stayed out. But in seventh, team mate Perez was more decisive. “Shall we box? Let’s box,” he told his team, diving into the pit lane. Behind him Leclerc, Pierre Gasly, Zhou Guanyu, Kevin Magnussen and the two AlphaTauris of Yuki Tsunoda and debutante Liam Lawson followed suit.
Perez emerged with his intermediates 27 seconds behind his team mate. But the rain was rapidly heading northbound and the entire track was now wet to some degree. Those who pitted were as much as ten seconds quicker in the middle sector than those ahead flailing on slicks. Verstappen led the second pit lane scramble in as many laps as Alonso, Sainz and Esteban Ocon followed. Incredibly, despite the plumes of spray being ejected from their slick-shod cars along the main straight, Russell, Norris, Albon, Piastri, Lance Stroll, Valtteri Bottas, Nico Hulkenberg, Lewis Hamilton and Logan Sargeant all opted to persist with their slicks.
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Verstappen rejoined the circuit behind all of these drivers, as well as Gasly and Zhou on intermediates in 13th. The only other car ahead of him also on intermediates was that of his team mate, who was already 13 seconds up the road in fifth place and making mincemeat out of those who hadn’t pitted. By the end of the lap, Perez had driven around everyone in front of him to take the lead, while Zhou, Gasly and Verstappen had all passed eight cars each to sit in third, fourth and fifth, respectively, behind Russell.
When Russell was inevitably dispatched, Perez led by over 11 seconds over Zhou with his team mate Verstappen 14 seconds behind him in fourth. Despite a painfully slow stop, Leclerc had made back that time to sit in fifth, but had suffered floor damage in the earlier clash with Piastri and would begin dropping back. Verstappen sized up Gasly at Tarzan, clipping the Alpine’s right-rear with his front wing as he did so, before brushing him aside through the banked third turn. Zhou was picked off the next lap in similar fashion, making it a Red Bull one-two by the end of lap seven.
Despite the team instructing their leading pair to look after their intermediates with the threat of more rain in the not-too-distant future, Verstappen took more than a second out of his team mate with each sector he completed.
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“I had to close the gap up front,” Verstappen explained after the race. “But luckily I think within a few laps I closed down like 10 seconds of the gap. So that was very important for the rest of my race.”
By now, the rain had ceased and the cars were doing a surprisingly effective job of drying out the racing line. By the time DRS was activated at the start of lap 11, there were already a wealth of cars who were switching back to slicks.
Neither Red Bull was among them, until the team decided they would bring in Verstappen first at the end of the lap. He returned to the track with no traffic ahead of him, allowing him to take almost three seconds out of Perez in the middle sector, which saw him jump ahead of his team mate when Perez pitted for slicks at the end of the next lap.
Verstappen was then back in the lead of the race, three seconds ahead of Perez with Alonso now third after diving by Zhou as they’d both left the pit lane while undercutting Gasly in the process. But before anyone could settle into a rhythm for the first time in the race, drivers were again interrupted from their flow states.
Clipping the apex kerb at turn seven on lap 15, Logan Sargeant’s car appeared to suddenly refuse to continue turning, sending the Williams rookie spinning into the TecPro barrier and ending his session with a wrecked car for a second straight day. Despite the obvious clean-up that the crash called for, the Safety Car was not deployed for over half a minute.
When the restart was declared for the end of the 21st lap, Verstappen bunched up the pack through turns 11 and 12 before making his break on the short run to turn 13. Perez, to his credit, stuck closer to the world champion over the restart than many before him had, but by the end of the first restart lap, he was already out of DRS range of his team mate ahead.
Of the top 14 drivers, only Zhou in sixth was running on mediums instead of softs. With 50 laps remaining and the threat of rain before the end of the race one that all teams were taking seriously, managing their tyres was now a major concern for all drivers. At the previous round in Spa-Francorchamps, Verstappen had spent the majority of the race being nagged at by engineer Lambiase for leaning on his tyres too much. But as he gently pulled out a gap over Perez behind, he received much more positive feedback on his management.
Over the 20 laps following the restart, Verstappen grew his advantage to seven seconds. The front of the pack was spreading out, with the top eight cars all separated by more than 2.5s seconds from the car ahead. With Zhou dropping down the order on his mediums, the top ten were now all running on soft tyres that were at least 30 laps old. Remarkably, Albon in sixth was still on the same set of tyres he had taken the start and braved the opening shower with.
Eventually, Sainz was the first to pit from fifth place for a different set of softs at the end of lap 41. Over the following laps, almost everyone would follow him into pitting for newer rubber, with Red Bull again pitting their driver in second before their driver in the lead. Gasly served his penalty during his stop for fresh softs, crucially rejoining just ahead of Russell on old hard tyres, while a slow left-front wheel change frustrated Alonso as it dropped the Aston Martin behind Sainz and the yet-to-stop AlphaTauri of Tsunoda.
With Verstappen’s lead having grown to eight seconds before his team mate’s stop, he could comfortably retain his track position when he eventually came in at the end of lap 49, emerging five seconds ahead of his team mate. Alonso, despite his setback, rapidly got ahead of Tsunoda and chased down Sainz until he was with DRS range. The Aston Martin made quick work of passing the Ferrari up the inside of Tarzan.
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With under 20 laps remaining in the race, all eyes turned to the skies once again. Drivers could see the ominous dark clouds approaching from the south, while their teams all prepared them for an inevitable second shower
“We are expecting rain around ten laps from the end, Max,” Lambiase warned Verstappen, “some of which could be pretty heavy.”
By lap 59, Lambiase could be much surer about the severity of the incoming rain. The next time around it had arrived. Knowing it was about to get wet, Perez chose to pit the moment he felt the drops hit his visor in the final sector, leading yet another rush of cars into the pit lane. Verstappen, Alonso, Albon and Ocon were all in at the next lap as the rain transformed the circuit in a matter of minutes.
Rain had fallen during other F1 sessions over the weekend, but the skies had saved their heaviest for last. As the pit straight quickly became soaked, Perez slid straight off the track at Tarzan, spinning through 180 degrees into the barrier, but was fortunately able to continue. The water level was rising literally by the second, and the same corner claimed Hamilton and Bottas, both of which also continued.
Red Bull were in no mood to take risks, summoning both their drivers in for the full wet weather tyres. But as Verstappen headed in to the pit lane, Zhou became the heaviest victim of the water on the main straight, aquaplaning all the way down the escape road until slamming into the barrier. The Virtual Safety Car was deployed, but despite the reduced speed Perez still could not slow down enough for the pit entry, bouncing lightly off the inside wall and crossing the white line at 60.8kph – just over the 60kph speed limit. However, by the time he was heading down the pit lane, the race had been red-flagged.
“That’s a bit silly,” Verstappen stated. “Why the red flag?”
“I’ll tell you why,” Lambiase replied. “Unfortunately, you, Ocon and Checo were the only people that fitted the wet tyre – so then it becomes ‘too dangerous’. Nobody wants to fit a wet tyre. That’s the situation we’re in.”
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The field lined up in the pit line in the order they happened to be in on track as the red flag was called, with leader Verstappen in the middle of the pack. With Perez stranded by a red light at the end of the pit lane, race control announced that the restart order would be taken from the moment the VSC had been called, allowing Perez to take the restart from third place.
Following a delay of 40 minutes and with the rain having passed, Verstappen eventually led the reordered field out of the pit lane with all 17 remaining drivers on intermediates. After two laps behind the Safety Car, Verstappen backed the pack up again at turn 11 to prepare for the restart and the final six laps of racing. Once again, Verstappen chose to hit the throttle on the approach to turn 13, but Alonso was much closer to him along the pit straight than Perez had been for the first restart. However, as hard as Alonso fought to stick with the leader, he was unable to have a look at making a move.
Perez remained third with Gasly behind him in fourth, but the Red Bull driver had narrowly exceeded the pit lane speed limit as he aquaplaned in during his previous stop before the red flag. He received notice of his inevitable five-second penalty, putting his potential podium position in severe jeopardy.
Further back in the pack, Norris and Russell were fighting over seventh place into turn 11. The pair made the slightest contact, enough to leave Russell with a puncture which forced him to pit, dropping him to the very back of the field.
Russell’s demise was the only position change in the top 10 places across the final, six-lap run to the flag. Once Verstappen got to grips with the conditions, with his intermediates up to temperature, he pulled away from Alonso behind and headed towards yet another win.
“I knew that my first lap the whole weekend already has not been the best with warm-up, so I knew that I had to survive that first lap,” he later explained. “Fernando was pushing very hard behind and I could see him close in my mirrors. But once I had the temperature in my tyres it was all well-balanced again.”
Verstappen’s third consecutive Zandvoort win and ninth straight 2023 victory had been arguably his most challenging. But with Perez again unable to match his pace, Verstappen proved that not even weather could threaten his supremacy.
“It was probably one of the more difficult races to win,” he admitted. “It is hard and, especially, it’s easy to make a wrong call or even drop it yourself in the gravel or whatever. So it’s never that straightforward unfortunately.”
Alonso never looked under pressure for second place from the restart and was delighted to return to the podium for the first time since the Canadian Grand Prix. “I was quite happy with the race and it was one of those Sundays where you feel connected with the car, you feel in sync with the car, and everything you do, the car is just answering perfectly,” he said.
Perez crossed the line 1.3 seconds behind Alonso in third, but with Gasly comfortably under the five seconds he needed, the Alpine driver inherited the final podium place with seconds to spare. It was Alpine’s second podium of the season as well as Gasly’s first appearance on the podium since Baku in 2021.
“I’m pleased, because we haven’t been very fortunate since the start of the year,” Gasly said. “Involved in some unfortunate situations on many occasions… but you’ve got to keep your head down and always trying to improve what you can on yourself, and today it paid off. Big congrats to the guys and a great way to restart the second part of the year.”
Behind Perez in fourth, Sainz led home Hamilton, Norris, Albon and Piastri with Ocon claiming the final point in tenth. Despite the chaos brought by the rain, the gambles by many of the teams lower down the order and the late restart, the bottom three teams in the championship were the only ones not to finish with at least one car in the points.
But at the top of the table, Verstappen had only brought his date with destiny as a future three-time champion closer with yet another win. But more immediately, Verstappen had given the majority of those who had travelled to Zandvoort exactly what they wanted to see for the third straight season. And in just a week’s time, he could once again make history in his sport.
“Nine in a row was something I never even thought about, so very happy with that,” said the winner. “But in general I’m very happy to win here in front of my own crowd.”
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2023 Dutch Grand Prix
- Azerbaijan GP defeat was key to record-equalling run of wins – Verstappen
- “Too early to say” if podium signals return to form for Aston Martin – Alonso
- Verstappen makes history with unbeaten hat-track in first home races
- Perez is ‘doing his job and will be our driver in 2024’, Horner insists
- Ferrari had the “sixth or seventh fastest car” at Zandvoort – Sainz