After an extended wait of over 35 years, Formula 1 returned to Circuit Zandvoort in the Netherlands. It was supposed to happen in 2020 but the pandemic stopped that from happening. The circuit has undergone a series of changes and updates for hosting modern F1, highlighted by the heavily banked final turn that gives it NASCAR and IndyCar vibes. 

While a handful of drivers have raced at Zandvoort in the last 15 years in junior categories, no one had any experience around this fast-paced circuit in an F1 car. Most of the track is made of fast corners and it isn’t particularly wide in any part other than the main straight. It was soon evident that we’d be unlikely to see many overtakes between equally competent cars and that qualifying would be key.

The best part about new tracks on the F1 calendar, or even returning to old tracks after a long time, is that drivers and teams have to learn on the fly. This nullifies some of the strategic advantages of the bigger teams who hire the biggest brains and makes for a less predictable race weekend overall. However, none of that would shake the fact that Max Verstappen was the favourite to win as the home hero with Lewis Hamilton as his only threat.

The practice sessions were a bit chaotic but luckily without any major incidents. Sebastian Vettel’s AMR21 caught fire while Hamilton’s black Mercedes suffered an engine issue. Both Ferraris were impressively quick on Friday but fell behind a bit on Saturday. 

The battle for Pole was fought mainly between Max and Lewis with the Dutchman staying just out of reach from the Brit. Verstappen did manage to secure Pole position on his final run in Q3 but only by a few hundredths of a second. Valtteri Bottas was comfortably third-fastest but was not joined by the Red Bull driver you’d expect. It was Pierre Gasly who proved to be worthy of starting on the second row after Sergio Perez was knocked out in Q3 due to a strategical error. Already on the back foot, Red Bull opted to change a few extra parts on Perez’s car and take the penalty for changes under Parc Ferme conditions to start him from the pit lane. 

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz secured the right to park their red racecars on the third row of the starting grid on Sunday. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi had his best F1 qualifying yet by setting the seventh fastest time. On the weekend that Kimi Raikkonen announced his plan to retire from F1 at the end of the season, the Finn tested positive for Covid and was substituted by Robert Kubica. The Alpine drivers were fastest after the Italian, with Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso starting eighth and ninth respectively. It was a rough qualifying for McLaren with only Daniel Ricciardo making it to Q3 who’d be starting tenth and Norris a few spots behind.

Given the high-speed nature of the circuit, nearly all racers were starting on the Soft tyre compound. Max and Lewis got off the line equally well which allowed the Red Bull to hold position through the first corner. The Mercedes driver followed suit but things got pretty tasty behind the top three. Both Ferrari drivers were on Gasly’s gearbox, nearly three-wide through the exit of the first corner. We saw drivers taking both the high and low lines through the banked Turn 3 but there were luckily no incidents through that section on the opening lap. 

Fernando Alonso had the spiciest start from P9. He took the outside line for Turn 1 and had one wheel on the grass through the inside of Turn 2, squeezed by Ocon and rubbing tyres with him, before cutting across to the outside line for Turn 3 to move up to P8. He was alongside Giovinazzi while approaching the next sequence of corners with Sainz just ahead of them. The Alfa got squeezed off track for the inside line through Turn 5 left-hander which left room for the Alpine to take the outside line and go for the inside of Turn 6. The bumpiness of the track unsettled Alonso’s car on the exit of 6 and almost chucked into the way of Giovinazzi who had to brake hard and compromise his line through the sweeping right-hander that is Turn 7. This allowed Ocon and Ricciardo to pass him as well, dropping Antonio from P7 to P10 on the opening lap. 

By the end of the first lap, Verstappen was more than a second clear of Hamilton. A few laps later, Bottas was well out of contention for the win as the three pulled away from the rest of the pack. Perez started from the pit lane on Hard tyres but he wasn’t able to play the long game. On Lap 8, the No.11 Red Bull was coming up behind Nikita Mazepin who made a late defensive move into Turn 1, forcing Perez to slam on the brakes, lock up and flat spot his front right. The Mexican had to pit at the end of the lap to switch to Mediums and once again charge up the field from last place. While most of the race was a bit of procession, Sergio was pulling off exciting overtakes around Turn 11 at the end of the second DRS zone. 

It was a strategy battle for the lead with Verstappen staying out of DRS range from Hamilton but not being able to pull away entirely. Since Zandvoort is a short and fast circuit, it wasn’t long until the front runners started lapping the back of the grid. Mercedes decided to put Hamilton on a two-stop strategy and undercut Verstappen by pitting for Mediums on Lap 21. Red Bull responded by boxing the lead car on the following lap for Mediums as well and also got the advantage of a faster pit stop. This placed Bottas at the front of the race with Max and Hamilton behind. 

Valtteri was clearly on a single stop strategy, extending his first stint on the Soft tyres as was the rest of the mid-field. Max and Lewis caught up with him by Lap 29, being within striking distance on Lap 30, and passing him the following lap. Verstappen passed Bottas down the main straight thanks to the DRS advantage while Hamilton was let through on Turn 2. The Finnish driver pitted at the end of that lap for his set of Medium compound tyres. In front, the reigning world champion was closer to his rival now than he had been since the start of the race. But in clean air and with better luck in lapping the backmarkers, Max was once again out of striking distance for Lewis.

Mercedes were on the back foot with Red Bull having the quicker car this weekend. There have been instances when the seven-time world constructor’s champions crumble under pressure when they are outgunned and that’s what seemed to happen at the 2021 Dutch GP as well. Desperate to try and get Lewis ahead of Max, they decided to pit him a second time quite early. He came in on Lap 40 for a set of scrubbed Medium tyres, after just 19 laps on the fresher set from the first stop. Even though the Brit was pushing his Mediums harder than the race-leader, they would have lasted for a good number of laps more. Lewis’ situation was aggravated further by rejoining the track behind a backmarker and not in immediate clean air. Red Bull was able to respond with ease yet again, pitting Max the following lap but opting for the Hard tyres instead. These would guarantee Verstappen’s run to the finish at a decent pace, unlike Hamilton who might be quicker at first but could struggle with tyre wear towards the end.

Even though Lewis was able to close the gap to Max on a few occasions, he could never stay on the attack or stay within DRS range long enough to mount a serious challenge. He was always 3-4 seconds behind his 2021 title rival. Bottas was having a race of his own in P3 with no challengers around him. He did pit a second time on Lap 68 for a set of used Softs and “accidentally” set the fastest lap, stealing the point from his teammate. Mercedes then pitted Hamilton on the penultimate lap for Soft tyres to reclaim the extra point on the final lap of the race, handing Verstappen a comfortable win in front of his home crowd.  

Max Verstappen took the chequered flag at the 2021 Dutch Grand Prix in style with orange smoke billowing from the stands and fireworks along the main straight. The orange army put up a show of support on par with the British fans at Silverstone or even the Tifosi at Monza. Hamilton and Bottas crossed the line next to take the podium spots with an extra point for the fastest lap. This was the 18th time this trio shared the F1 podium and we can expect a few more of these before the season is over. On top of that, the top three finished the race a lap ahead of everyone else.

Pierre Gasly had a lonely but impressive performance to finish as he started, in P4. A longer first stint on the Softs paid off for both Leclerc and Alonso who crossed the line in P5 and P6 respectively. The Alpine driver was getting by fellow Spaniard Sainz in the closing laps. Hot on their tail wings was Sergio Perez who finished the race P8, a decent recovery for someone who started from the pit lane. His overtakes also earned him the fan’s vote for driver of the day. Perez and Norris had a close call towards the end of the race as the Red Bull driver attempted to pass the McLaren around the outside of Turn 1. We suspect we’ll see more incidents between these two, the bad blood starting from their incident at the Austrian GP earlier this season. Check out Checo’s overtakes in this compilation below:

Both Alpine drivers scored at Zandvoort with Ocon finishing P9. Norris was able to score the final point of the race after starting 13th on the grid. He was the only one who went for the extended overcut with a 42-lap stint on the Medium tyres he started on and was able to move up the order that way. Ricciardo finished P11 in the end.

The other big moments from the race involved Haas’ Mazepin nearly forcing his teammate Schumacher into the wall at the end of Lap 1. We got to see another Sebastian Vettel pirouette who lost the rear end on entry into Turn 3.

We did see some drivers try to get creative around the banked Turn 3 by taking lower or upper lines but not any successful overtakes. Despite a fair few offs, crashes and breakdowns over the weekend, we did not see any big incidents from the Dutch GP.

Max has reclaimed the lead of the driver’s championship standings but is only 3 points clear of Lewis. Bottas’ podium and Norris’ low score has allowed the Finn to move up to third in the standings. The driver’s leaderboard could change again at Monza next week where Mercedes and Mercedes-powered teams have been more dominant in recent years. In terms of the Constructor’s Championship standings, Mercedes has pulled an 11 point lead over Red Bull. 

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Final Classification:

  1. M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda — 1:23:54.543
  2. L. Hamilton Mercedes +46.452
  3. V. Bottas Mercedes +17.973
  4. P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +1 lap
  5. C. Leclerc Ferrari +1 lap
  6. F. Alonso Alpine Renault +1 lap
  7. C. Sainz Ferrari +1 lap
  8. S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda +1 lap
  9. E. Ocon Alpine Renault +1 lap
  10. L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +1 lap
  11. D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +1 lap
  12. L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +2 laps
  13. S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes +2 laps
  14. A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +2 laps
  15. R. Kubica Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +2 laps
  16. N. Latifi Williams Mercedes +2 laps
  17. G. Russell Williams Mercedes DNF
  18. M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +3 laps
  19. Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda DNF
  20. N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari DNF

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