From the moment teams first rolled out their revolutionary new cars in Barcelona for the first test of the 2022 Formula 1 season, Ferrari quickly established themselves as the team that all others would need to beat to have any hope of victory in the first season of F1’s new era.
Red Bull gladly stepped up to that challenge. Despite a rocky start, Red Bull and world champion Max Verstappen raced hard against their revived rivals until, by the summer break, Verstappen had pulled so far ahead that any realistic hopes of a Ferrari fightback in the final phase of the year had already faded.
As 100,000 Dutch fans held a symbolic coronation carnival for their soon-to-be two times Formula 1 champion at Zandvoort, even Ferrari were forced to admit that not only were Red Bull faster than them, but they were no longer the championship leaders’ closest rivals on track.
Red Bull and Ferrari’s Dutch Grand Prix weekends could not have contrasted more sharply in their fortunes. Despite ending Friday smelling blood in the water with Red Bull looking more vulnerable than they had been all season, Ferrari were left deflated on Saturday evening when Charles Leclerc missed out on pole position by the slimmest margin of the season. Verstappen, naturally, was the one who denied him.
With Leclerc and team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr behind the pole winner, the Ferrari drivers openly mused the prospect of playing the numbers game and splitting their strategies to try two different forms of attack on Verstappen at his home race. But when the tyre blankets were whipped off from cars before the formation lap, all three cars were sporting soft tyres.
Only Mercedes, it seemed, were willing to zig while their rivals zagged. George Russell lined up on the grid in sixth with a shiny new set of medium tyres, while, two spots ahead of him, Lewis Hamilton was sat drumming his steering wheel with his hand, waiting for the lights sequence to start, his car also sporting the yellow-walled rubber.
When the lights eventually went out, the front four launched away fairly evenly, with Verstappen having time on the run to turn one to cut across Leclerc as much to make a point as he did to practically defend his lead. As Verstappen swept around Tarzan for the first time he was, appropriately enough, greeted with a roar from his thousands of compatriots in attendance.
The top five completed the opening lap in orderly fashion, followed by Lando Norris who gained sixth place at the expense of Russell. Verstappen was enjoying the luxury of entirely new softs for his opening stint, while the Ferraris behind had to make do with used sets from qualifying. But Red Bull were keen for him not to burn up that advantage too soon.
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“Get onto that tyre management, Max,” Verstappen’s engineer Gianpiero Lambiase instructed his driver. “At this stage, just increase that management.”
Once Russell had moved back passed Norris at the start of the fourth lap, the top six were all lapping within the mid 1’16s. As all three teams kept their drivers regularly informed of the pace of the other two, Leclerc snuck into DRS range of the leader for the first time since the system was activated.
Almost as if he was offended by the Ferrari daring to get withing a second of him, Verstappen replied with 1’16.2 to open the gap back up to over 1.5 seconds. Instead, Sainz was the one who had the most reasons to look in his mirrors, with Hamilton proving more than a match for the Ferrari despite his supposedly slower tyres.
Zandvoort’s compact pit lane had opened up pre-race strategies by making two stops just as viable as a one stop. As ever, it was a question of tyres. So when Ferrari informed Leclerc that tyre degradation was “lower than expected, but not enough for Plan C,” it appeared that a single stop was unlikely to be on the cards that afternoon.
That became even more clear when Sainz, who had been slowly falling away from his team mate, pitted on the end of the 15th lap after Mercedes spooked them into thinking Hamilton would be imminently doing the same. Unfortunately for Sainz, it was his turn to suffer Ferrari’s weekly pit lane calamity as he was left stranded in his pit box waiting for his new left-rear tyre, a full 10 seconds after the first three had been fixed onto his car.
“We tried to react simply to stay ahead of [Hamilton], which was the best way to keep track position,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto later explained. “We called our driver in, but that was when he was in the last corners and too late for the mechanics to be ready. So it was too late as a call.”
Red Bull had also called Sergio Perez in from fifth, who had more than enough time to run over Sainz’s left-rear wheel gun out of the box for good measure as he moved up a position. But Perez’s team mate was also making gains out front, with Leclerc suddenly dropping off by half a second a lap from the leader until eventually pitting for mediums at the end of lap 17, emerging behind the two Mercedes on the same compound as them.
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Just two laps later, Red Bull relinquished the lead by pitting Verstappen. He had held a five-second advantage over Leclerc before the Ferrari driver came in and he merged back on track to find that lead still intact. With his fresh tyres, Verstappen hoovered up the gap to Russell ahead and claimed back second place on the pit straight at the start of lap 28, Russell hardly bothering to offer up any defence that would likely prove futile.
With Russell seen to, the Oranje Army were audibly amped at the prospect of seeing their man take the lead back by pulling a move on Hamilton, but they were denied the pleasure when Mercedes pulled the trigger at the end of lap 29 and switched Hamilton onto the hard compound. With 43 laps remaining, it would be tough ask for Hamilton to get to the end of the race, but not the most challenging task Mercedes had set their multiple world champion.
“Do I need to be pushing now?,” Hamilton asked over the radio. “Affirm,” replied Peter Bonnington.
Once up to temperature, the fresh rubber on the Mercedes duo instantly made them the fastest cars on track by a wide margin. As Verstappen and Leclerc remained in the 1’16s on their 15-lap-old mediums, Hamilton and Russell were pumping in 1’15s lap after lap.
In no time at all, Hamilton had Perez in his sights. Not for the first time in his career, Hamilton had a tough time finding a way by the second Red Bull, Perez locking up at Tarzan and running wide as Hamilton attempted to get around the outside of him at the start of lap 37. A lap later, the deed was done, although the lapped Sebastian Vettel caused blood pressures in the Mercedes garage to spike by refusing to yield to Hamilton for blue flags for the entire first sector. The stewards later punished the Aston Martin driver with a five-second time penalty.
With one Red Bull out of the way, Hamilton began to chase down the 18 seconds that separated him and the other one leading the race, having lost four seconds dealing with Perez. Both Mercedes continued to lap quicker than the two leaders, closing the gap consistently, if not rapidly.
But suddenly, those on the pit wall were forced to sit up in attention when Yuki Tsunoda slowed to a stop on circuit on lap 44. With any marshal intervention almost certainly requiring a Safety Car of either variety, Ferrari put their pit team on standby with enough notice for them to have all four tyres to hand this time around. However, Tsunoda was encouraged to restart his car and return to the pits, seemingly ending the threat of a disruption.
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Despite the track being clear, Ferrari chose to pit Leclerc from second place anyway for hard tyres at the end of lap 45, following suit with Sainz behind. That promoted both Mercedes up to second and third, as Hamilton continued to gradually grind down Verstappen’s lead.
After recovering to the pits, Tsunoda was released back onto the circuit before almost immediately being told to pull over for a second and final time. Race director Eduardo Freitas activated the Virtual Safety Car and the slower pace temporarily inflated Verstappen’s 13.7 second lead to over 19.
Red Bull took full advantage, pitting the leader at the end of the lap for a second set of hards while Mercedes boxed both their cars for mediums. But while Hamilton was initially delighted with what he thought had been a masterful call by his team, his bubble was burst when he was informed that Verstappen had also pitted ahead of him.
“That has stuffed our strategy,” Hamilton sighed.
Once the green flags flew, the margin between Verstappen and Hamilton sat at 12.5 seconds with just over 20 laps left and Mercedes theoretically on the faster compound. Leclerc was a similar gap back from third-placed Russell in fourth, the VSC timing not working out in his or Ferrari’s favour.
But just a handful of laps later, it was time for Alfa Romeo to suffer their now-customary techanical failure. Valtteri Bottas ground to a halt on the approach to Tarzan, pulling to a stop by the inside barrier rather than risk trying to make the escape road by crawling along the racing line at the fastest point on the circuit.
Bottas’s stoppage was covered under local yellow flags for a full lap before the Safety Car was deployed to neutralise proceedings once more. Despite pitting just seven laps earlier, Verstappen did not hesitate.
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“Can we make a free stop, or not?,” he asked. “No,” replied Lambiase. “But we are boxing this lap, Max. Box this lap.”
Although he narrowly fell behind Russell into third on the way out of the pit lane, Verstappen knew that was not critical to Red Bull’s strategy for him. He would hold the performance advantage when the race resumed, making the loss of track position a price worth paying.
The leaders caught the Safety Car as, behind them, Leclerc, Perez and Sainz all tried to catch up to having pitted to take off their hards for the final sprint. With the field directed to follow the Safety Car through the pit lane, Russell made a bold call.
“I’m losing the tyres. I think we need to put the softs on,” he said as he rounded the banking at the end of the lap. Despite the late call, Mercedes responded quickly enough to get him out ahead of Leclerc at the cost of second place to Verstappen. Watching in his mirrors, Hamilton had a sudden sinking feeling.
“Why did you stop George?,” he asked.
“Er, don’t know Lewis,” Bonnington admitted. “I’ll let you know.”
“That was a mistake, mate,” Hamilton said, realisation dawning over him. “We had track position. We had a buffer between us, now we don’t have that.”
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What Hamilton did have instead was his mirrors full of Verstappen’s Red Bull. As he bunched up the field for the restart at the end of lap 60, Hamilton knew he was in for a near-impossible final 12 laps of resisting the advances of the man who 105,000 ticketholders had come to see win.
However, as Hamilton floored the throttle out of turn 13 at the restart, he was late to engage the ‘strat five’ engine more his race engineer Peter Bonnington told him to use. He was immediately reminded on the radio, but it left him exposed to the relentless top speed of Verstappen’s RB18, now deep into his slipstream behind.
“I was late to get to the race mode,” he explained afterwards, “but I was on the race mode on the straight, but they were just so fast on the straights.”
Sure enough, with almost comical ease, Verstappen breezed by the Mercedes and back into the lead before even having to worry about braking for Tarzan.
As the excitement in the grandstands reached fever pitch, Hamilton could not suppress his frustration at seeing an outside chance of a first victory of the season disappear and let Bonnington know in no uncertain terms just how unhappy he was. However, he would later retract claims his team had “screwed” him after the adrenaline of the race had worn off.
With Russell on softs, there was little Hamilton could do to prevent his team mate cruising up behind him and taking second at the start of lap 64. Leclerc did not take long to follow, demoting the former race leader off the podium entirely as his older mediums proved no match for newer softs.
The final laps of the race were little more than a parade of honour for Verstappen in a race that itself had felt like an early championship celebration for the Red Bull driver. Russell could do nothing to put Verstappen under any kind of pressure. The leader completed the 72nd lap to take the chequered flag and signal for the fans with flares in the stands to finally unleash a smoky orange haze around the circuit – a fitting tribute to the Dutch driver who has only delivered the best possible results for his adoring public in two Dutch grands prix.
But the calmest Dutchman in Zandvoort was Verstappen himself. “Yes! Haha,” he laughed across the line. “They threw everything at us, but we made the right calls, so very lovely result, guys!”
As well as giving due credit to his driver, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner had yet another reason to praise his team’s strategists in 2022.
“The Virtual Safety Car came out and we switched to the hard tyre because of how we’d seen it performing which just protected track position for Max,” Horner explained.
“But then the bigger call came towards the end of the race when there was the full Safety Car where you’ve got your home driver leading in front of 105,000 people and you decide to pit him for the soft tyres and concede track position behind two Mercedes…”
Russell crossed the line four seconds later, satisfied to take the best possible result anyone whose name is not Max could expect to have had at Zandvoort, but also happy to have been disappointed for Mercedes not to have snatched a victory from the Red Bull.
“I think if you told me before the race, I’d be finishing P2, I’d have definitely been very happy with that,” Russell admitted. “But I think we, as a team, thought we had a shot at victory today.”
Leclerc had looked so strong on Saturday until the end of qualifying, leaving him with another disappointment in this increasingly agonising season for Ferrari.
“We just didn’t have the pace,” Leclerc put it bluntly. “We weren’t quick enough.
“So this is the main focus at the moment, to try and bring back the speed that we had at the beginning of the season. We seem to have lost it, a little bit of pace in the long runs especially.”
Hamilton had to swallow his frustration at falling to fourth and focused on the bigger picture and the turnaround from his disappointing Spa weekend. “We’ve got so many positives to take this weekend,” he said.
“Yes we got fourth in the end. But the car felt great. If the car feels like this in the other races we’re going to be fighting for a win. And that’s amazing.”
Perez took fifth after another weekend of being out of reach of his team mate, while Fernando Alonso claimed vital points for Alpine over Lando Norris and McLaren in sixth. Sainz was demoted to eighth at the finish after a frustrating unsafe release penalty, with Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll taking the final points on offer.
But the biggest development of the race was not Verstappen’s victory nor Hamilton’s thwarted bid for victory. It was Ferrari’s realisation they may no longer have the second-quickest car on the grid as they head from Verstappen’s home race to their own at Monza next weekend.
“It’s three races where we were not performing on the Sunday how we should,” team principal Mattia Binotto said. “And no doubt I think it’s not only Red Bull but Mercedes which are faster than us.”
But for champion-elect Verstappen, having emerged victorious from such a dynamic race of strategy, the prospect of Monza in just seven days was almost more exciting for him than it was Ferrari.
“I think if you look at the whole season, you have more tracks with kind of medium downforce levels and I think our car is very efficient,” he said. “So that’s why I think we’re all looking forward to Monza.”
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