Fine margins for overtaking gave Verstappen the advantage at Zandvoort

Passing at Zandvoort was no day at the beach, says Mark Hughes

Lewis Hamilton leaves the pits at Zandvoort 2021

Dan Mullan/Getty Images

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Mercedes’ attempt at using a two-stopping Lewis Hamilton and a one-stopping Valtteri Bottas to ‘pincer’ Max Verstappen’s faster Red Bull in the Dutch Grand Prix was based around the calculated difficulty of overtaking around the tight Zandvoort track. According to team simulations, a lap time advantage of around 1.8sec would be needed in order to accomplish an on-track pass, which makes it the second-most difficult – after Monaco – on the calendar.

Verstappen took off from pole and immediately established an undercut cushion over the following Hamilton – i.e. his gap was big enough that he could pit a lap after Hamilton and still emerge ahead. Both were setting a hard enough pace to make it clear they were intending to two-stop. Bottas in third ran a gentler pace, with the intention of one-stopping. This was a deliberate split strategy from Mercedes, the idea being to use Bottas to slow Verstappen after the Red Bull had pitted and rejoined behind the yet-to-stop Bottas, allowing Hamilton to catch up, creating a possible undercut chance up to the second stops. Red Bull was unable to counter it strategically, as Sergio Pérez had failed to make it out of Q1 and would be starting from the pitlane.

After Verstappen and Hamilton rejoined from their first stops on their fresh medium tyres, it took eight laps for them to catch Bottas on softs, which by then were over 30 laps old. The degradation rate of the soft was calculated by Pirelli to be 0.1sec per lap, so theoretically Bottas was lapping around 3sec off a new-tyred time. A new medium was around 0.7sec slower than a new soft but the degradation was much lower. Theoretically, Verstappen and Hamilton on their much newer mediums should have been around 1.5sec faster than Bottas – which, again theoretically, wouldn’t be enough for Verstappen to overtake.

That’s where the opportunity lay for Hamilton. With Verstappen bottled up behind Bottas it would allow him to erase the 2sec deficit to the Red Bull. As Verstappen caught Bottas on the infield on lap 29, it did allow Hamilton to get right onto the Red Bull’s tail. “Our concern at this point,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner afterwards, “was that Hamilton would pit and undercut them both.”

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Red Bull was loath to surrender track position over Hamilton by anticipating that and pitting Verstappen – in which case Mercedes would have left Hamilton out long, ready to attack on newer tyres late on.

But Mercedes was reluctant to bring Hamilton in so early for his second stop, as it would have entailed a 42-lap stint to the end.

Red Bull would have been able to give Verstappen an optimally-timed stop much later, giving him at least the 1.8sec margin he’d need to overtake by the time he caught the old-tyred Hamilton.

Instead, Mercedes reckoned if Bottas could hold the Red Bull behind for long enough to get Hamilton to a slightly later second stop, they could do the undercut without the big tyre age offset to Verstappen later on.

So with neither team ready to commit to early second stops, it was now crucial that Bottas hold Verstappen off as long as possible. That 1.5sec tyre performance deficit he had might have been enough to allow him to stay ahead. But the Red Bull itself was around 0.3sec faster than the Mercedes around Zandvoort: 1.5sec + 0.3sec = right on the cusp of a pass. Bottas’s 29th lap was a 1min 16.0sec. Verstappen’s was 1min 14.3sec the lap before… It would be close.

It was decided as Bottas locked up his old front-left tyre slightly going into the Turn 11-12 chicane and got a poor exit out. It gave Verstappen the opportunity he needed to slipstream the Mercedes to Turn 13 and onto the banked final turn. He was pulling out of its slipstream and going faster even before DRS activation, which made it a done deal. The pincer had failed, ultimately because the Red Bull had that crucial extra 0.3sec over its rival.

 


Tyre tactics

Pirelli’s infographic for the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort shows the lap time and life deficit between the three tyres, with the hard and mediums being almost too close to call. It was therefore tough to find the 1.8sec lap time advantage to make passing a sure thing.

Pirelli F1 tyre analysis from 2021 Dutch Grand Prix