May 28, 2023

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10 things we learned from F1’s 2021 Dutch Grand Prix

Formula 1 ended a 36-year wait to hit Dutch shores – quite literally, going to the beach – in style as Zandvoort hosted a much-needed boost for the paddock.

The washout at Spa had left a sour taste in the mouths of most, but the Dutch Grand Prix was the perfect palate cleanser.

The on-track spectacle was hardly a thriller, but the combination of an exciting layout for drivers, a festival atmosphere and a victory for the home hero meant the weekend ticked a lot of boxes for F1.

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Dutch Grand Prix.

Race Winner Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing celebrates in Parc Ferme

Race Winner Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing celebrates in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

1. ‘Super Max’ kept to the script with a home win to savour

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that without Max Verstappen, there would be no Dutch Grand Prix. His fervent supporters who traipsed across Europe to cheer him on made F1 realise a return to the Netherlands was something it had to chase, with the dream finally being achieved last weekend.

The narrative was set: the Dutch Grand Prix returns, the Dutch fans turn up, the Dutch driver wins. In the end, that’s exactly how it panned out – not that we ever thought it would be anything different.

Verstappen has never been a driver to bow under pressure, and even amid all of the buzz at Zandvoort, he appeared to take everything in his stride. He was grateful for the support as always, making particular note of the King of the Netherlands attending the race. But he at no point seemed distracted from the job at hand, which was to win the race and reclaim the lead of the championship.

It wasn’t a weekend without its minor hiccups, such as the red flag investigation from FP2 and the DRS failure at the end of Q3. But Verstappen had the measure of his rivals, nailing the start and putting Red Bull into a position where it could always react to Mercedes’ moves behind.

The Dutch fans are bound to have one hell of a hangover today, having spent last night toasting their hero and blaring out the ‘Super Max’ song that has become their anthem. But they’ve witnessed history – and perhaps the turning point for Verstappen in his march to a maiden world title.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

2. Mercedes couldn’t answer Red Bull’s strategy despite good pace

Verstappen may have only just reclaimed the lead of the drivers’ championship, but a truer picture of where the power currently lies in the title race comes in a grim statistic for Mercedes.

In the past nine races, Mercedes has scored just one win – Silverstone – and its last true defeat of Red Bull on outright pace came at the Spanish Grand Prix in early May.

But the margins between Mercedes and Red Bull have been fairly thin, and were again at Zandvoort. Verstappen’s race victory was convincing, but it was not at a canter. Lewis Hamilton managed to hang within a couple of seconds at points as they scythed through traffic, and while Verstappen likely had pace in hand at the front, he could not easily streak clear.

PLUS: The Mercedes tactics that Verstappen had to overcome to win at home

It was a decent response from Mercedes given Hamilton had lost most of his Friday running after the long red flag in FP1 and a power unit issue in FP2. But when it came down to the strategy, it couldn’t answer Red Bull. Verstappen’s lead was always enough to see off the undercut, and the hard tyre offered more pace than Mercedes anticipated.

Trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin admitted after the race Mercedes had been “a bit optimistic” hoping Red Bull would go with softs for the final stint, but felt the team had been a “bit behind the curve” all weekend compared to its main rival.

To have one win in nine and still lead the constructors’ championship, and have Hamilton just three points off the top in the drivers’ standings, isn’t bad at all. The task for Mercedes is to turn the marginal defeats into marginal wins – something it needs to do quick before Red Bull’s momentum becomes too great to stop.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

3. We shouldn’t read into Bottas’s ‘cheeky’ fastest lap effort

Valtteri Bottas’s late flirting with the fastest lap bonus point against Mercedes’ wishes may have been entertaining, but it is not a sign of anything untoward that should be read into.

Mercedes opted to pit Bottas as a precaution towards the end of the race, fitting him with a set of soft tyres that he understandably thought were intended to be used for a shot at the fastest lap. He was told not to go for the fastest lap by his race engineer, Riki, and questioned why not – before lighting the timing screens purple in the first two sectors.

It was enough to warrant the infamous “Valtteri, it’s James” radio call, telling Bottas to back off. The Finn obliged, but still set the fastest lap, taking the bonus point away from Hamilton.

It may have been read in some corners as defiance from a driver likely on his way out of the team, but that wasn’t the case at all. The fact Hamilton was then able to get the fastest lap by over 1.4 seconds late on showed just how much Bottas did back off, following the team’s call, even if he did say he was “playing around” a bit.

Toto Wolff said Bottas’s push for the fastest lap was “cheeky”, but that he understood it and they would talk about it. But he also acknowledged that Mercedes did run a risk of denying Hamilton the point had there been a yellow flag or incident on his final lap that forced him to back off.

“You have to understand also at that point, there’s a certain degree of frustration of Valtteri, and at the end, everything is good,” Wolff said. “We’re going to talk about it, but in a most amicable and professional way.”

Helmut Marco, Red Bull Racing, Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri

Helmut Marco, Red Bull Racing, Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri

Photo by: Erik Junius

4. Gasly was the true driver of the day

F1’s ‘Driver of the Day’ vote is a nice initiative to get fans more involved, but it rarely delivers a fair result. Sergio Perez won the vote for Zandvoort, and his charge through the pack was certainly exciting – but that tends to be how the voting goes, favouring those charging through the field, pulling off overtakes and dominating the screen time.

In truth, Pierre Gasly was the driver of the day, and of the entire weekend. He strung together a stunning lap in qualifying to take fourth on the grid, and then held his own to come home an excellent fourth for AlphaTauri. It is still the only team to have scored points in every race this year.

But what made Gasly’s drive all the more impressive was the strategy involved. He pitted on Lap 24 for a set of mediums that had to last 48 laps to get to the finish, all while keeping Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who took hard tyres a full 10 laps later, at bay. One of the key parts of the drive was an overtake on Fernando Alonso after his pitstop, who he cleared quickly with a great move around the outside at Turn 1.

It was a supreme display from Gasly that will only add to the questions about his long-term future, and what he has to do to get back into the frame for a Red Bull seat. It would be wonderful to see him get the chance in a top team again, because performances like Sunday only prove his star quality and ability to cut it with the very best on the grid.

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Nikita Mazepin, Haas VF-21, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

5. Red Bull and Perez need to iron out their mistakes

Mercedes may have been beaten at Zandvoort, but the team actually left having extended its lead at the top of the constructors’ championship after a tricky weekend for Sergio Perez.

Perez said that a “mess” in qualifying was down to a number of factors that, after his last lap in Q1 put him eighth, led to him being bumped out in 16th place.

It was sensible to take an engine penalty, but Perez didn’t help his fightback from the pitlane by flat-spotting his tyres into Turn 1. He was able to make it through to eighth in the end, passing Esteban Ocon late on after surviving a clash with Lando Norris a few laps earlier, ensuring Red Bull had two cars in the points.

But it was the second Saturday in a row where Perez hadn’t featured at the front. He’s outqualified Verstappen just once this year – at Imola in April – and while Mercedes wasn’t able to split strategies in the end, the absence of a second Red Bull left the team vulnerable.

Perez said his Q1 exit was “really hard to digest” as he’d been feeling in a good place with the car at Zandvoort, which hasn’t been a regular occurrence this year. But both he and the team need to get things together at Monza to help the constructors’ fight, as Mercedes cannot be allowed to keep collecting points so freely.

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1 and Mick Schumacher, Haas F1

Nikita Mazepin, Haas F1 and Mick Schumacher, Haas F1

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

6. Haas has a growing problem with Mazepin and Schumacher

Of all the places for an intra-team spat to emerge this season, Haas would not have been much of a bet for many people at the start of the year.

Yet the team clearly has a growing problem on its hand after Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher had two incidents at Zandvoort, pointing to the growing fractures at the team.

Qualifying on Saturday saw Mazepin claim Schumacher had deliberately ruined his lap by defying the pre-session agreement and passing him on-track. Schumacher responded by saying the team had told him he could do so, and that he did nothing wrong.

The race saw a much bigger incident. As Schumacher moved to pass Mazepin on the right-hand side starting the second lap, Mazepin moved his car across, forcing Schumacher to back out at the last second. It was a super late move that left Schumacher with front wing damage, and the German driver admitted he was “very angry” but chose not to say anything on the radio.

Gunther Steiner’s reaction afterwards was diplomatic, saying it “always takes two to tango” in such situations. Yet it is not the first time that Mazepin has pulled such a move on Schumacher this year, with such aggression also being clear in junior categories.

Schumacher admitted after the race that there was “room for improvement” in the relationship with Mazepin, which is putting it mildly. Unlike other teams, the two Haas drivers were not interviewed together on the driver parade, something that Mazepin pointed out during his interview.

It may not make a whole lot of difference for Haas now given its current level of performance. But as it looks to a return to competitiveness in 2022, it needs to sort this growing issue – and to prevent a possible accident as well.

Fans go wild for Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Fans go wild for Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

7. Zandvoort’s festival atmosphere made it a bucket list race already

For the 72,000 fans lucky enough to be in the grandstands at Zandvoort, they got to be the envy of F1 fans across the globe who would have instantly made the Dutch Grand Prix a must-attend event.

It was more like a festival than a grand prix, something that Liberty Media has been keen to try and achieve with races. This is the first race that F1’s new owners have successfully added to the calendar and pulled off, and it must be deemed a resounding success.

From nine in the morning until long after the cars had stopped running, there was house music blaring out from a DJ – sometimes even during red flags – to keep the crowd hyped and the atmosphere going. The majority may have been there to see Verstappen, but even the few neutrals – or brave Mercedes fans, of whom there were a handful – would have been soaking up the atmosphere.

Hamilton’s previous post-race comments may have made the phrase ‘best fans’ a bit of a joke in F1 circles, but truthfully, the Dutch might have just settled that argument.

A nice note as well is that, unlike in Hungary, the booing towards Hamilton was minimal, being most notable after qualifying but settling down after parc ferme interviewer Giedo van der Garde called for some respect. It may have been a different story if Hamilton had taken pole or won the race, but it was nice that the fears some had going into the weekend about the backlash that might be faced were not recognised in the end.

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT02, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, and Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT02, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21, and Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

8. F1 can learn from Zandvoort’s success for future track changes

Zandvoort may not have been a ‘new track’ for most of the F1 field given its rich history, yet its changes meant the drivers were eager to get to grips with the fresh challenge.

And it was one they savoured. The banked corners at Turns 1, 3 and 14 won rave reviews, especially Turn 3, which offered a variety of different lines for them to try. In the end, drivers worked out that the high line was the quickest, but it didn’t stop a few going low in the race to try and make a pass – something that proved costly for Sebastian Vettel as he spun.

The race itself may have been a little underwhelming, but that was no surprise given the tight and narrow nature of the track that offered few overtaking opportunities. We saw a decent number of moves at Turn 1 as driver slung their cars around the outside, making it hardly a procession.

As F1 moves forward and either alters tracks to aid overtaking or goes to new markets, Zandvoort can hopefully offer some inspiration that will be followed. It was fast, exciting, and punished mistakes – we didn’t hear the words ‘track limits’ once all weekend!

Combined with the atmosphere and how close the grandstands were to the track, it will have made the Dutch Grand Prix a firm favourite for the drivers even after just a single running.

Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing

Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

9. Raikkonen’s positive test reminds us of the risk facing F1 drivers

On a weekend that started with news of Kimi Raikkonen’s retirement at the end of the season and so many wonderful tributes from his peers, it was a shame not to see the Iceman racing.

PLUS: Why the time is right for Raikkonen to hang up his F1 helmet

A positive test for COVID-19 was revealed on Saturday morning, ruling Raikkonen out of the weekend and paving the way for Robert Kubica to make his F1 comeback, stepping in as Alfa Romeo’s reserve driver.

Kubica fared well, finishing 15th – a result he bettered just once in his season with Williams in 2019 – despite limited time to get up to speed on a challenging circuit, providing a nice story for F1 given the Pole’s popularity.

But Raikkonen’s positive test despite being double jabbed is a reminder of the risks facing F1 drivers at the moment. Even if they are asymptomatic, a positive test could have a big impact on their season if they are forced to miss a race – especially for the title protagonists.

This is not to say Raikkonen didn’t take the necessary precautions. He isolated immediately despite Dutch law not requiring him to, and moved to protect his other team members. But even when doing all they can to protect themselves, a positive test can really have a big impact.

Alexander Albon, Red Bull Racing

Alexander Albon, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

10. Red Bull faces a dilemma over what to do with Albon

As the driver market gets ready to move this week with announcements now imminent, Formula 1’s silly season is entering its final stages.

With the answers to the Russell/Bottas saga being clear for everyone to see, much of the intrigue in recent days has surrounded the futures of two drivers not on the F1 grid right now.

Alexander Albon and Nyck de Vries are angling for drives next year, and look most likely to fill the seats at Alfa Romeo and Williams.

PLUS: Why Williams now holds the power in Formula 1 silly season

But Red Bull is facing a dilemma with Albon. The team has made clear its preference is to place him at Williams for next season, but the stumbling block is the fact it is a Mercedes customer team.

Toto Wolff has said Mercedes would be happy to work with Albon at Williams, so long as Red Bull were to release Albon from his contract with them. But it seems unlikely that Red Bull would want to give Albon up after all the investment it has put in his career and the obvious contribution he has continued to make with the team.

Red Bull must decide if it would rather lose Albon for him to get the Williams seat, or if it would take him going to Alfa Romeo to keep those links. Opting for the latter would also open up a seat for Mercedes Formula E driver de Vries at Williams, who now holds the power in the driver market and can see what offers come its way, being in no rush to make any decisions.

2021 F1 Dutch GP race start

2021 F1 Dutch GP race start

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images