Two out of three F1 wins ain’t bad for Verstappen

Red Bull’s team leader wins a race (and a bit) to extend his lead before clashing heads again with Hamilton, says Mark Hughes

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2021 Belgian GP | 2021 Dutch GP | 2021 Italian GP

Only two of these events were actually races. In Belgium, for the first time in the championship’s history, points were paid out essentially on the qualifying order as the unrelenting Spa- Francorchamps rain ensured there wasn’t a single piece of racing, just a total of three laps behind the safety car. Conditions of almost zero visibility on the long straights ensured that at no stage was the track safe to race upon.

A great deal of arcane regulation was invoked to distinguish between what did and did not constitute an event having taken place. This of course had commercial implications and determined various pay-outs to F1 as well as the points. Meanwhile the thousands of spectators who had stood around in the rain for several hours were left to trudge home having not seen a race. Half-points were awarded for the order behind the safety car, meaning Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was the official ‘winner’ ahead of Williams’ George Russell, who had driven a stunning lap in wet qualifying the day before to go second-fastest, ahead of the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton. This was the trio obliged to go through with the post-event podium ritual.

A notable misnomer from the qualifying order was seventh-place qualifier Sergio Pérez, who had crashed his Red Bull on his first lap out of the pits on race day but was later able to join in the formation at the back. Lando Norris had crashed his McLaren out of Q3 through the Eau Rouge/ Raidillon section, having gone fastest of all in both Q1 and Q2, and so was also at the back in his rebuilt car.

Fireworks as Max Verstappen wins at Zandvoort 2021

Dutch support for Verstappen and Red Bull in Zandvoort was spectacular

Florent Gooden / DPPI

It was an enormously frustrating event for all concerned (with the possible exception of Russell and Williams) and FIA president Jean Todt vowed in the aftermath that lessons would be learned. “The weather windows predicted by the forecasters did not appear throughout the day, and while a small window did appear late in the day during which there was an attempt to start the race, conditions quickly worsened again.

“Verstappen mania was intense, even with a cap of 70,000 fans”

“Therefore, due to the lack of visibility created by the spray behind the cars, we could not run the full race in sufficiently safe conditions for the drivers, marshals as well as the brave spectators who waited for many hours in the rain, for whom I am very sorry.

“The FIA together with Formula 1 and the teams will carefully review the regulations to see what can be learned and improved for the future.

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“The findings, including the topic of points allocation, will be added to the agenda of the next F1 Commission meeting on October 5.”

That wet weekend was made a distant memory just a few days later with F1’s first visit to Zandvoort since 1985. Verstappen mania was intense even though a cap of 70,000 spectators had been imposed by the Dutch government as a Covid precaution. Every single one of them seemed to be in full party mode for the entire weekend and it was extraordinary to see a nation get behind a single driver in such an intensely exuberant way. Orange smoke shrouded the track every time his Red Bull appeared, football stadium cheers went up every time he did a lap to put him at the top of the timing screens. So it was very fitting that he should go on to dominate an event that his own success had essentially brought into existence around the reconfigured seaside circuit. Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes kept the pressure on, but said afterwards he believed Verstappen, “Had just been toying with us. They were so fast this weekend.”

Verstappen leads at Zandvoort in the 2021 Dutch Grand Prix

Verstappen was peerless in his Red Bull during Formula 1’s first visit to Zandvoort for over 35 years

Florent Gooden / DPPI

The biggest challenge faced by Mercedes was getting its car to work through the sequence of Turn 2/3 – the latter the now heavily banked Hugenholtz turn. The gradient of the banking is low at the bottom but rising up to 19 degrees in the top half. The fastest way was to go up high, with the outer wheels even beyond the white line, but the dynamics of the car in getting there were complex. If you were still scrabbling late on the exit of 2, you could not get over to the ideal right-hand approach for the banking. Furthermore the Merc was repeatedly scraping its front wing endplate through the banking and there was a genuine question of whether the car’s long wheelbase was proving a specific handicap. At no point in the weekend could Hamilton get anything closer than 0.18sec slower than Verstappen just through that short sequence. Which was the major chunk of the Red Bull’s lap time advantage. That banking definitely played its part in the fairytale outcome for the Dutch fans.

Max Verstappen celebrates winning the 2021 Dutch Grand Prix

Verstappen was triumphant on home turf at Zandvoort

Dan Istitene/ F1 via Getty Images

Verstappen and Hamilton in their duel locked themselves into two-stop strategies while Valtteri Bottas in third set a more restrained one-stopping pace, a long way clear of the Pierre Gasly-led midfield battle in which the Ferraris and Alpines were also involved. The idea at Mercedes was to use Bottas to help put a strategic pincer on Verstappen, who was ensuring he was always just out of Hamilton’s undercut reach. No matter what Hamilton tried, Verstappen had the speed in hand to answer and so was able to respond a lap later to Hamilton’s first stop and still emerge ahead. This left the yet-to-stop Bottas in the lead and as Verstappen and Hamilton quickly closed him down on their fresh tyres, so there was possible opportunity for Bottas to delay the Red Bull and put Hamilton right on its tail. That is indeed what happened but Verstappen was able to make a clean pass on the leader at the beginning of the following lap. To the wild approval of the crowd, of course. From there he eased out of Hamilton’s reach once more.

As Hamilton initiated the second stops still with half the race distance to go, he was put onto medium tyres. Verstappen was put onto hards as he responded the following lap. With his initially faster tyres, Hamilton was able to slowly reduce the gap, though he suspected Verstappen would have performance in hand. The Red Bull driver indeed stepped up the pace. Just as Hamilton’s tyres began to fade. From that point onwards Verstappen was able to increase his lead every lap on his way to an historic victory, whipping the crowd into an orange frenzy. Hamilton made a late third stop, to at least take the fastest lap point. So close is this title contest, it could be decided on such small margins.

Valtteri Bottas leads at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix Sprint

Bottas leads the Monza sprint

Clive Mason/F1 via Getty Images

Just as Zandvoort made Spa ancient history so, a week later, Monza did the same to Zandvoort. The long straights were perfect territory for the lower-drag Mercedes, something confirmed in Friday qualifying when Bottas and Hamilton locked out the front row for the sprint race, 0.4sec clear of Verstappen. It was already known that Bottas would be taking multiple grid penalties in the main race on Sunday for a new power unit and associated changes.

“McLaren secured its first victory in nine years and a 1-2 at that”

Which should have made the Saturday sprint race the perfect preparation for a Hamilton victory in the main event, by sitting him on pole.

But it didn’t work out that way. Hamilton made a disastrous wheel-spinning getaway on Saturday and was only fifth out of the first corner. Bottas led from start-to-finish, tailed throughout by Verstappen. Hamilton was unable to find a way past the fast-on-the-straight McLaren of Lando Norris and finished fifth, putting him fourth on the grid on Sunday, and behind two of those inconveniently quick McLarens. Verstappen would start from pole – which on the ultimate Mercedes circuit was a potentially hugely powerful swing in the championship.

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But it didn’t work out that way either. It ended up with Verstappen’s right-rear wheel resting upon the halo of Hamilton’s car in the gravel trap, the Red Bull’s tyre actually pushing on Hamilton’s helmeted head (thankfully the wheel was no longer turning). The net result of that collision allowed McLaren to secure its first victory in nine years, and a 1-2 at that, Daniel Ricciardo leading Norris across the line. But even without that incident, McLaren may well have won anyway. Daniel Ricciardo – third in the sprint race and therefore starting second – out-dragged Verstappen off the line to lead. This was disastrous for Verstappen as the Red Bull was considerably slower than the slippery McLaren at the end of the straights. Verstappen could no more overtake it for the lead than Hamilton could Norris for third.

Max Verstappen' Red Bul wheel hits head of Lewis Hamilton

Arguments for the safety improvements of the halo were settled many years ago, but once again its benefit was clear at Monza

Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Actually, Hamilton had scrabbled ahead of Norris at the first corner and had then slipstreamed Verstappen up through Curva Grande and took a look around the outside into the Roggia chicane – only for Verstappen to hang him out over the kerbs. As Hamilton took to the escape apron and rejoined, so he was re-passed by Norris. He’d stay behind him all the first stint, just as Verstappen was trapped behind Ricciardo. The McLarens were seemingly impossible to overtake.

“Verstappen placed his car so Lewis had to move aside. He chose not to”

McLaren brought Ricciardo in from the lead on lap 22. He hadn’t quite cleared Carlos Sainz’s sixth-placed Ferrari but McLaren reckoned he’d be able to pass it immediately on his new-tyred out-lap. This is indeed what happened. Red Bull responded, instructing Verstappen to give it everything on his in-lap, in the hope that Ricciardo would be delayed on his out-lap.

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But Verstappen already suspected the ploy was doomed. As Ricciardo had stepped up his pace on his in-lap Verstappen had not been able to go with him. His tyres were shot. His flat-out in-lap was a full 1sec slower than Ricciardo’s had been – so he wasn’t about to jump the McLaren, even without the disastrous delay that was about to unfold in the pits.

The top teams use ‘smart wheelguns’ which have associated software and signals. Since Spa there have been FIA-imposed restrictions on these to make them less automated (see sidebar). They now require a slightly different set of actions from the wheelgun man. This led to an operational error on the right-front of Verstappen’s car as he pitted, which cost him around 8sec. It was enough for Norris to overcut himself up to second. It was also enough for Mercedes to bring Hamilton in to take advantage.

McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo at Monza

Slippery and super-fast on the straights, Ricciardo’s McLaren may well have been unbeatable in Monza, even without the high-profile clash

Joao Filipe / DPPI

Hamilton had not planned to stop so early. He’d been fitted with hard tyres, with all those around him on mediums. The plan had been to run much longer, running in the lead for 13-15 laps after the others had pitted, then rejoin on brand new mediums just as they were on old hards. The numbers suggested he’d have been with Ricciardo, Norris and Verstappen by the end. Instead, after suffering his own 1.5sec delay in the pit, he exited just as Verstappen was bearing down fast on his out-lap. The Red Bull went for the outside of the first part of the corner, with Hamilton marginally ahead on the inside. But it’s a switchback and so inevitably there was a point of potential contact where the feasible line narrows to a point. Verstappen had placed himself where it would have required Hamilton to move aside to avoid contact. He chose not to, the Red Bull was thrown into the Mercedes, interlocking wheels, flipping Verstappen over the top of the Mercedes’ engine cover.

Amid the drama it went almost unnoticed that Valtteri Bottas joined the two McLaren drivers on the podium, having put in an impressive drive to third after starting at the back due to Mercedes taking an engine penalty.