Posted on September 15, 2022.
Report by Tony Cotton.
It would be good to think that Verstappen’s performance at Zandvoort was helped by a home crowd, as that would give a bit of hope. It’s often said that the support of a home crowd is worth lap time to a driver. Certainly, at least 90% of the crowd at Zandvoort appeared to be Verstappen fans, but were they a help to him? I would suggest no.
There seems to me to be two possibilities. Either the drivers have a mind that relates to that of the amateur, or it’s on a whole different level. If it’s the first then I and most others who have competed would probably argue that when you are driving in an event, whether a Grand Prix track or Curborough, you are giving the task all your attention, or at least should be. In that case, there isn’t room in the brain for the crowd’s reaction or support.
On the other hand, if we take the “superhuman” assumption, then the driver is so good and so analytical that the emotional aspect of a crowd could have no effect as they are always giving all of their effort no matter what the circuit. The second approach is particularly relevant when the driver appears to be cold and unemotional, almost automaton-like. The apparently humourless Verstappen and Russell would, based on their media personalities, seem to fit this model. I’m not so sure about the past – genuine personalities like Hill (Graham or Damon), Mansell or even Johnny Herbert seemed to flourish in home races, but those were different times; even arguably a different sport.
Q1 initially had Charles and Carlos on Verstappen’s tail, but alert bells started ringing when Hamilton took second. Tsunoda’s surprise 3rd might be regarded as a “Q1 contract renewal time” special, whereas Bottas, Ricciardo and Vettel have generally given up on everything and went out. Q2 caused more confusion on real performance as Verstappen set a decent time and then sat it out, allowing Carlos to take top spot. Many felt sorry for Albon who was out after his run was spoilt by a flare on the track. Fortunately this proved to be an isolated incident as the Dutch flare fans seem to have now seen sense, or at least had it explained to them by a friendly policeman.
Q3 put Ferrari in peril from Mercedes, Hamilton initially splitting the Maranello pair, but come the final runs, Charles set a superb 1:10.363 which was only narrowly beaten by Max, with Carlos under a 1/10th behind. Hamilton took 4th ahead of Perez, who seems to have gone consistently backwards since the RedBull was enhanced for Max. Russell and Norris followed up, perhaps Russell’s 6th being considered surprisingly low in the circumstances. The last three were Schumacher and Tsunoda, draft contracts optimistically velcro’d inside their overalls, and Stroll, very sensibly saving car and tyres by sitting in the garage with “a technical issue”.
In a very strange turn of events, the starting grid was the same as qualifying order. I didn’t realise that was possible.
The start was generally clean with the first three staying unaltered, despite the “best efforts” of Hamilton who had a very scruffy attempt to pass Carlos, nudging him in turn 2. As I said last time, Hamilton is a great driver, but a mediocre racer. He did, however, fend off Perez. Thereafter, the first 5 places were maintained until the first of two planned stops (for most) on lap 15. Carlos pitted to switch from softs to mediums, but (according to the team) it was a late call meaning that the rear left wasn’t ready. The result was a 12.6 second stop, compounded by an errant wheel gun getting under the front of Perez. Carlos rejoined in 11th. Charles and Verstappen pitted a couple of laps later, leaving Hamilton in the lead ahead of Russell. In an attempt to compensate for a good but not dominant car, Mercedes adopted a one-stop strategy. It wasn’t fully carried through, but it was a brave and intelligent choice.
Verstappen hunted the Mercs down and easily DRS-passed Russell before inheriting the lead when Hamilton pitted on lap 29, accepting that he couldn’t hold Verstappen off for long. Together with Russell’s stop, this promoted Charles to second. By the halfway mark, Carlos was back to 6th, a place he occupied for 20 laps until Perez pitted on lap 40. With Mercedes apparently on a one stopper, they were beginning to look strong. They gained places when Charles pitted on lap 45, Carlos having done so on the previous lap.
Things then started to take a strange turn. Tsunoda stopped on track and undid his belts, claiming the car felt odd. He then restarted, with belts undone, got to the pits and was sent out again. He was then told to stop, prompting a virtual safety car. This crucially allowed Verstappen to pit for new tyres, which Christian Horner said “could not have come at a worse moment” as they had planned to go onto softs a bit later. Those who aren’t beneficiaries of the “RedBull think” training course felt otherwise, that the VSC was a benefit to RedBull, and conspiracy theories soon flooded social media. The theories were strongly denied by Alpha Tauri, who were indignantly mortified by the very suggestion. As Winston has said in the past, who are we to think otherwise when assured by such honourable men as Christian Horner and the RedBull empire. Crucially for Ferrari, both Mercedes had pitted under VSC and as a result got ahead of Leclerc.
More safety car fun ensued on lap 55 when Bottas stopped at the end of the pit straight, allowing Verstappen to take on softs and, more relevantly for us, Charles and Carlos to do the same. Poor Carlos must think that he had offended the pit stop Gods as after a good stop he was released and then had to slow to avoid the McLaren pit crew. This caused Alonso to slow, and controversially in some eyes. the release was therefore deemed unsafe and given a 5 second penalty. To compound matters further, he was delayed on exit behind Norris. Verstappen took on softs, and Russell also pitted, apparently at his own late call. Despite the short notice, all 4 tyres were ready for him. Whilst undoubtedly the right call for Russell, it left Hamilton exposed. For Mercedes’ rivals, the friction it caused can be nothing but good news.
After everything settled down, the order was Hamilton, Verstappen, Russell, Leclerc, Perez and Sainz. What could possibly happen with Verstappen on new softs and Hamilton on old hards? It happened at the restart and was inevitable. Poor old Hamilton must have had 2021 flashbacks. His abuse to the pit was not pleasant. What added to Hamilton’s annoyance was when Russell narrowly avoided rear-ending him and passed for second. Charles passed him for 3rd. Carlos made up a place by passing Perez to finish 5th on the road, while behind them were Alonso, Norris, Ocon and Stroll. Sadly, Carlos was demoted to 8th due to the dubious penalty.
It’s difficult to see how the result could have been a lot better for Charles. He and the team did very little wrong, but the car was somehow not quite fast enough. On the day Verstappen drove well, in a good car with sound if not original strategy, and of course no help at all from Alpha Tauri.
Russell reinforced my earlier comments about state of mind. He seems not just cool, but cold and unemotional. I wouldn’t want him as company at dinner, but as a driver he’s pretty good. Mercedes seem to have sorted the early season dog into a decent car.
Carlos drove well, despite claiming the setup was suboptimal and being assaulted on lap 1, but lost at least 12 seconds – who can say how many places? – due to pit issues.
Mattia Binotto commented: “Now we go to Monza where we can expect a warm welcome from our tifosi. We know we can always count on their support and it will be great to finally see the grandstands at the Autodromo packed out.” He obviously disagrees with me, and from other comments Charles does too. They believe that a home crowd is a help. I don’t think they’ll lose sleep over my opinion.