Netherlands GP is a mix of tension and tactics for Verstappen and Hamilton

Max Verstappen took pole position for the Dutch GP and celebrated with the ‘Orange Sea’ (Photo: Red Bull Pool Content/ Getty Images)

If on paper the Zandvoort circuit does not offer several overtaking points and the most realistic expectation would be to wait for a long procession this Sunday, the practice must have surprises in store. A closer look will see the small traps in an artful and chaos-prone layout. It may not be the best place for someone who is in a tight title fight, but it is where an important turning point can happen. And Max Verstappen, the most interested in a comeback, did the first part of his homework by winning the right to start from the grid’s honor position, to the delight of an orange-painted circuit, this Saturday (4).

Red Bull tries to take advantage of a circuit that matches their RB16B very well. In other words, a layout that requires balance, downforce and good traction. The short and curvy track is also one of the points that makes Adrian Newey’s project shine, even more in the hands of Verstappen. The Dutchman passed through the two stretches of the grid definition without much effort, but it was in Q3 that he made a very special lap on the first attempt, in which he passed with purple splits in all three sectors. Of course, anyone looking at the final difference in the table – just 0.038 separated Max from Lewis Hamilton – may have the impression that the dispute is very even. It’s a mistake, however.

The runner-up in the championship was not able to reproduce the same performance in the final spin due to a failure of the DRS, which slowed the Taurus car. So, as excellent as Hamilton’s comeback was, the difference at the top of the standings is unreal. In no time in the Dutch afternoon, Mercedes managed to face Red Bull. Anyway, Max did what he needed to and comes off pole, the tenth of his career, the seventh of the 2021 season.

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Dutch fans filled the Zandvoort race track (Photo: AFP)

But this great power also brings enormous responsibility. Because this is a race that draws itself tense, also based on strategy, with the flavor that it is a circuit that likes confusion – so, new red flags and safety-car interventions are very possible. So, even on pole, Verstappen has the mission to dodge any misfortune, and this starts from the first meters.

Max has to get through turn 1 unscathed, while Hamilton goes into the clash, as he occupies a slightly advantaged position, even though he came out second and on more used tyres. The seven-time champion knows that, in a circuit that barely adapts to W12 and that inhibits overtaking, the secret is also in the start, in addition to the bet on chaos and strategy, with the presence of Valtteri Bottas there in third.

Mercedes adopts an interesting posture and correctly understands that Verstappen is more exposed, at least in theory. Alone at the front, the Dutchman will have to decide what to do. And this could help the German team to define their own tactics, which could be different for the two drivers. “I think we can play both strategies tomorrow. We saw that we can have two cars that can go through totally different alternatives: stop one of them [para o pit-stop], undercut and then leave the other car on the track. And this can help to finish first and second”, declared the Austrian manager in an interview with British broadcaster Sky Sports.

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Mercedes placed Hamilton in second and Bottas in third (Photo: Mercedes)

For the boss, the basic tactic throughout the race will be one stop. But the option of two pit-stops could change the game on Sunday, and that also has to do with eventual SC entries. “I believe that if we can keep the same pace in the race, once again, it will be about surviving with just one stop. Max needs to make a decision: is he going to stop for one or two?” he pointed out.

The Star squad’s reasoning makes sense. It’s a tactical race, after all. Therefore, Red Bull prefers to look to itself, believing in a strong race pace, while trying to minimize Sergio Pérez’s poor grid position. The Mexican was filed while in Q1 when he got to the lane too late and got stuck in traffic. Thus, it only starts in 16th. “We just have to focus on our race. In a perfect world, we would leave ahead. I just think that somehow it won’t be that simple,” said Christian Horner in response to his rival, adding that the real contest is only against Hamilton.

“They have two guys who can share the options. But the key guy we have to beat, of course, is Lewis, so you have to pick your fights,” he amended.

It’s a way of looking at things. But Red Bull also seems to have an interesting card up its sleeve: Pierre Gasly. It is clear that the thunderous performance of the Frenchman, who starts from fourth place, drew attention, especially due to AlphaTauri’s performance in the young man’s hands. It is true that Gasly is still passed over, but a strategy married to his older sister cannot be out of the question.

And anyway, the standard strategy should be one-stop, with a first stint with soft or medium tires and a second with hard ones. “In terms of race strategy, everything is still a bit open, with one or two pits possible. However, teams will want to focus on a one-stop if they can, which you can do using the medium or soft tire at the start, followed by a switch to the hard ones. Without a lot of background information to go back to, there’s also room to bet on something different, which might be worth it,” said Mario Isola, the head of Pirelli.

Although the tactic seems to carry a lot of weight, tension grows between the two protagonists right after the lights go out. The distance from the front row to the brake is small and can even decide the race. But, as you know, you can’t win on the first corner.

Watch now the BRIEFING, live program on the BIG PRIZE on YouTube, which dissects everything about the Dutch GP.

THE Formula 1 accelerates this Sunday, at 10 am (GMT-3), for the start of the Dutch GP. An hour before, the BIG PRIZE presents the BRIEFING pre-race with the preview of the stage in Zandvoort and the latest information before the start.