There was a back to school feeling in the F1 Paddock, as teams returned from their summer break, rested, reinvigorated and energised for the remainder of the season, starting with the Dutch Grand Prix.
As you would expect, it was a sea of orange which dominated the Zandvoort circuit, as Max Verstappen’s adoring fans were out in force, over 300,000 of them over the weekend, expecting yet another victory for the home favourite. Given what has happened so far this season, that expectation for victory was comfortably well founded. The real question was whether teams below Red Bull had found some performance over the summer break to try and begin to bridge what has been, for much of this season, a Grand Canyon-sized gap.
On the evidence of qualifying, it didn’t seem like Verstappen would face too many issues. In a session affected by the unpredictable Northern European weather, he was well over half a second faster compared to the rest of the field.
Lando Norris continued the incredible momentum for McLaren in the lead-up to the summer break, joining Verstappen on the front row. George Russell was an impressive third, whist his teammate Lewis Hamilton started way back in 13th after going out rather surprisingly in Q2.
Perhaps the star of the show, however, was Alex Albon in the Williams in an impressive fourth, combining his raw driving talent with a much-improving car. At the other end of the scale, the summer break appeared to have done little for the fortunes of Ferrari, with Carlos Sainz only managing sixth and Charles Leclerc further back in ninth.
There was disappointment too for Daniel Ricciardo who didn’t even make the grid. An accident in qualifying left him with a broken wrist and he was replaced by Kiwi Liam Lawson, a proven talent in junior series, but a big ask for someone who has never competitively raced an F1 car.
The race itself was dominated by the weather, creating a sense of drama to keep fans thoroughly enthralled for the duration. It also meant that it wasn’t the casual Sunday afternoon drive that Verstappen fans were hoping for. The rain came down as early as lap one.
So, whilst there was a clean start to the race, teams had to make immediate decisions on changing to wet tyres. Those that went early, including Sergio Perez and Leclerc, gained a major advantage, whilst a delay to lap three for teams including McLaren, cost them time that they would spend the rest of the race trying to recover. It was the perfect example of the importance of the human element of F1. So much is made of the technology of the cars, telemetry, access to advanced weather forecasts etc, but those snap human decisions can often be the crucial factor for success.
Verstappen pitted a lap later than Perez, losing him almost 15 seconds, meaning he had much to do if he wanted to chase a third successive home win. The home hero did indeed make up that time and, at the next set of pit stops, he got the jump on Perez and took the lead, by that time moving away from the wet tyres, with a swiftly drying track.
That lead remained comfortable, until lap 62 when the rain started to fall incredibly hard. Conditions swiftly became too treacherous for racing, with a number of cars going off track, so the race was red flagged to allow the rain to ease.
Some have questioned why, with two types of wet weather tyres available, racing can’t continue. Lack of visibility is one of the main safety concerns and whilst the FIA have recently conducted some tests to try and seek solutions to allow for racing in such conditions, under the current setup the only option was to delay the race resumption.
The interlude brought about a chance for the carnival atmosphere of the fans to take centre-stage to pass the time. It was a time to reflect on quite how popular this race has become for the passionate Dutch fans in just three years of running in its current format.
It’s quite rare these days to have a race where such a vast proportion of the fans are cheering for just one driver. The love for British drivers at Silverstone, for example, is spread across three home drivers, whilst Barcelona tends to split between Alonso and Sainz, the Aussies between Ricciardo and Oscar Piastri, and the Italians will cheer anything in red. It’s a unique atmosphere and one that adds a lot of colour to the F1 calendar.
Forty-five minutes later, the race resumed and Verstappen held his nerve for the win. Behind him, however, was a different story. Perez was given a penalty for speeding in the pit-lane and so dropped from second to fourth, meaning that Fernando Alonso yet again showed his genius in the wet, taking second place. Pierre Gasly took his slice of good fortune and managed a remarkable third, quite a change from a series of pre-summer disasters and qualifying 12th on the grid the day before.
Sainz was fifth in an otherwise forgettable weekend for Ferrari, with Leclerc failing to finish after sustaining damage. Hamilton kept away from trouble, showing some signs of an improved car, finishing sixth, with Norris and Albon completing the top eight.
F1 is straight back into action this weekend for the Italian Grand Prix at the historic Monza circuit.
* Laurence Jones is senior manager, Marketing and Communications, Bahrain International Circuit