The Mercedes car is nearly always at the top of the charts, but they are no longer the most dominant force in F1. On Sunday, Max Verstappen became the youngest ever winner of the Dutch Grand Prix, and the triple world champion’s time with the team could be coming to an end. When the Dutchman arrived at the team in 2015, he was given an outsider’s chance to succeed, but since then he has won his last four races. With the F1 season now in its closing stages, does Verstappen have what it takes to beat the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel? Most likely not,
The Formula 1 World Championship is the biggest and richest racing series in the world, and it has a reputation for producing many exciting and memorable races. This year’s first Grand Prix in Australia was no exception, as the race produced a new winner and further exposed weaknesses at Mercedes.
For the past two Formula 1 seasons, Mercedes has been the dominant force in F1. But this season saw a new champion emerge, and it wasn’t Mercedes or Ferrari. Instead, it was Red Bull and its young Dutch driver, Max Verstappen. As the new World Champion, Verstappen has some very realistic challenges ahead of him in 2017. He has no experience at Mercedes, and his challengers will be pushing the limits on track and off on the technical front.
ZANDVOORT, the Netherlands (AP) — As Max Verstappen finished his victory lap at Zandvoort, the air was filled with orange smoke and a techno rhythm. The three-day celebration on the Dutch coast, which began the minute the first vehicle left the pits on Friday morning and culminated with 70,000 people celebrating the first Dutch home win in Formula One, had reached its pinnacle.
Given the build-up to the race, which was the first to be staged in the Netherlands since 1985, it seemed unthinkable that anybody other than Verstappen would win on Sunday. Mercedes, on the other hand, admitted that it made things lot simpler for Verstappen than it needed to be.
Although Red Bull had a clear speed advantage at Zandvoort, Mercedes had the strategic edge due to the fact that it had two cars in the lead compared to Verstappen’s lone Red Bull. Sergio Perez, Verstappen’s teammate, was knocked out in the first round of qualifying on Saturday, forcing him to start from the pit lane after the team replaced components on his vehicle. Mercedes lined up second and third on the grid, with Lewis Hamilton in second and Valtteri Bottas in third.
Lewis Hamilton toasts Dutch Grand Prix victor and title opponent Max Verstappen with champagne. Getty Images via ANP Sport
Plan A for Hamilton and Mercedes would have been to overtake Verstappen into Turn 1 and attempt to take control of the race from the front, but when Verstappen kept his lead into the first turn, Mercedes had to out-think its opponent from the pit wall. Hamilton is on a two-stop plan, while Bottas is on a counter-one-stop strategy, with the goal of catching Verstappen somewhere in the middle. Mercedes’ strategy, though, lacked the elegance it needed to prevail in the end.
On Lap 21, Hamilton’s initial effort to regain the lead was thwarted by a delayed first pit stop, and a badly timed second pit stop, which put Hamilton in backmarker traffic and saw Red Bull react with a pit stop of its own, gave the win to Red Bull and Verstappen.
The world champions were left battling amongst themselves in the final moments of the race, with Bottas, who is set to be replaced by Williams’ George Russell next year, going wild with a fastest lap effort that might have stolen a vital championship point from Hamilton.
Hamilton corrected the issue by stopping for the third time and claiming the fastest lap, but the scenario was chaotic and could have been catastrophic if the pit stop had gone awry, as it did on Bottas’ vehicle in Monaco.
Mercedes’ two drivers finished five points ahead of Verstappen and Perez, who finished ninth, extending the team’s constructors’ championship lead, but the outcome at Zandvoort was a harsh reminder that, on present form, Verstappen and Red Bull are the superior all-round package.
Is it possible that Mercedes squandered the race during the second pit stop?
The timing of Hamilton’s second pit stop was perhaps Mercedes’ most perplexing strategy move. He looked to be in a better position to undercut Verstappen only a few circuits earlier, but Mercedes passed him up due to worries over the number of laps remaining on a single set of tyres, and when the team did stop, it dumped Hamilton into traffic that took him several turns to escape.
The pit call was made at the wrong moment due to a lack of track time in Friday practice, which left the teams with no solid data on the hard tyre. As a consequence, Mercedes decided from the start of the race not to utilize the hard compound unless it proved to be faster on another vehicle later in the race, and it believed Red Bull would follow suit.
Mercedes believed that by pitting Hamilton when it did, it would push Red Bull into a lengthy stint on the softs, knowing that Verstappen would not be able to accommodate a second set of mediums, as it had done before. However, Red Bull, believing in Verstappen’s competence on all three tyre compositions, called the bluff and covered Hamilton’s stop with hard tyres that worked admirably until the chequered flag.
“In terms of strategy, we must state that perhaps half of the race was lost in qualifying and the start,” Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team manager, remarked. “They simply had great speed, and I believe if we had been ahead, emphasis on would have been, I believe we would have had the pace as well, but it was also necessary to take some chances.”
“We didn’t believe they’d accept the hard [second-stop tyre]. That was new terrain, and our plan was to force them into a soft second stop early in the race, which would have given us a chance at the finish. That is why we were unconcerned about where we would emerge [in terms of traffic]. They chose the difficult route, risked a little, and won the race.”
Max Verstappen made sure he didn’t spend too much time behind Valtteri Bottas. Getty Images/Lars Baron
Even if the plan had succeeded, Verstappen seemed to be much quicker than Hamilton all weekend. He won pole by only 0.038s, but Mercedes engineers think the margin would have been closer to 0.2s if Verstappen hadn’t made a mistake out of Turn 3 and his DRS hadn’t opened on the run to the flag.
With a well-executed strategy, Mercedes had the opportunity to put additional pressure on Red Bull, but this was still Verstappen’s race to lose, and he showed no indications of doing so from the time he raced away from pole position.
Verstappen retook the championship lead by three points with nine races remaining, prompting the issue of whether the title is now now Verstappen’s to lose.
“Well, I’m giving it everything, and we’re giving it everything,” Hamilton said. “These guys have had such a great vehicle all year, and we’re trying as hard as we can.” “But yes, we had a couple of races when it seemed like we were just about on par or slightly ahead, but they were the exceptions, and then we made a huge jump and it’s been tough.”
“I don’t know what more to say; we just have to keep our heads down and keep working; we’re leading the team championship, which is fantastic, but we need to pick up some pace if we want to win races in the future.”
The configuration of the next two circuits, Monza and Sochi, according to Red Bull team manager Christian Horner, will favor Mercedes.
“Their vehicle and engine package has traditionally been extremely good at those tracks,” Horner added, “and they have been weaker venues for us.” “So I anticipate them to have the upper hand in the next two, but after that it should be a toss-up, I would think.”
“For the next two weekends, we’re going to attempt to minimize the damage as much as possible and get as much as we can from the vehicle.”
Was Bottas trying to make a statement by setting the quickest time?
Valtteri Bottas seems to be on his way out of Mercedes at the end of 2022. Getty Images/Dan Istitene/Formula 1/Formula 1
Bottas’ position as a support driver for Hamilton at Mercedes has been apparent for many races, but that dynamic will be put to the test in the final races after it was revealed during the Dutch Grand Prix weekend that Bottas will be replaced at Mercedes next year. George Russell is likely to be announced as Hamilton’s partner in 2022 soon, while Bottas, who is set to move to Alfa Romeo, is said to already know his destiny for next season.
Bottas was placed on a one-stop strategy at Zandvoort to try to hold off Verstappen and assist Hamilton, but the plan backfired when Bottas made a mistake on Lap 31 that hampered his run into the pit straight and gave Verstappen an easy overtaking chance. Bottas’ race was clearly staged to give Red Bull a headache, and it was also obvious that he was never really in contention for the victory. Which made it much more intriguing when he passed Hamilton for the quickest lap towards the conclusion of the race.
At the conclusion of his second stint, Bottas began to feel a concerning vibration from his tyres, prompting Mercedes to pit him on Lap 67 of 72 to avoid a failure. Bottas took advantage of his new tyres to take the fastest lap from Hamilton (and the championship point that comes with it) on his first flying lap out of the pits.
Bottas was told to slow down by Mercedes’ pit wall, which he did in the last sector, producing a final sector time that was 0.8s slower than his previous lap but an overall lap time that was still 0.6s quicker than Hamilton’s. Hamilton had to perform his own pit stop to recover the point, which he accomplished by 1.5 seconds, but it put the pit crew in jeopardy and added to the tension on the Mercedes pit wall.
After the race, Wolff remarked, “Yeah, that was a little cheeky but understandable.” “Because this championship is so close, Valtteri is constantly on the receiving end.” In the last sector, he took off like a rocket, and it was obvious that Lewis would set the fastest time, and Valtteri was well aware of this. Lewis earned the point in his title fight, and it’s all fine.
“Lewis couldn’t possibly have lost a point because of that. It wouldn’t have been fair, however, since he had the quickest lap up until that point. But you have to understand Valtteri’s irritation at that moment, and everything turns out well in the end. We’ll speak about it, but in the most pleasant and professional manner possible. However, I can empathize with the circumstance.”
Bottas dismissed the issue, claiming that he was certain Hamilton would be able to pit and record his own best lap. “To be honest, there was quite a large gap ahead, quite a big gap behind, so it was a smart thing to stop for safety reasons,” he said. “I believe I could have gotten to the finish quicker without stopping, but the ultimate position was the same, so stopping at the end was the safest choice.” I assumed we were stopping for the quickest lap at first, but Lewis had a space and stopped as well.
“I was going flat out on the first lap in sectors one and two, but the team asked me to slow down at the end of the lap, so I was just playing around, really, because Lewis needed that extra point more than me, he’s fighting for the driver’s championship, and as a team we’re trying to get maximum points, so that’s how it is.”
Hamilton will need everything to go his way to defeat Verstappen, based on previous races, which makes Bottas’ moves in Zandvoort all the more intriguing for the championship battle.
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