Verstappen Fends off Mercedes Threat in Dutch GP


Jim K 9/5/22

Formula One tackled the sand dunes and steep banking of the Zandvoort circuit for the 2022 Dutch Grand Prix in front of an expectant crowd all willing one person to win; the reigning world champion Max Verstappen. Their hopes came true as the Red Bull driver took pole position, led from the front, and crossed the line in P1 with the fastest lap. However, this was anything but a straightforward victory for the home hero, as multiple tire strategies, pit stop errors, and late-race Safety Cars introduced jeopardy over an entertaining 72 laps of Sunday racing.

As has often been the case in 2022, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc shared the front row at the start. With the track offering limited grip, no driver got off the line at lights out well, and the polesitter could run off unopposed in the lead. Lewis Hamilton had a scary moment at Turn 1 when he placed his Mercedes down the inside of Carlos Sainz's Ferrari in a rapidly closing gap. The two collided but could, fortunately, continue undamaged.

Verstappen led from Leclerc, who had Sainz behind in P3 and unable to keep close to the lead pair, with Hamilton and Perez keeping the Spaniard within striking distance. The opening portion of the race unfolded without much drama aside from the second Mercedes of George Russell having to pass his compatriot Lando Norris for P6 after the McLaren driver edged past on Lap 1.

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A race dominated by pit stops truly began when Ferrari brought Sainz in on Lap 15 after struggling with his soft tires. However, the Scuderia soon wiped out any advantage of an undercut when they didn't have the left-rear wheel ready and ruined Sainz's race with a 12.7s pit stop. To make matters worse, Perez had pitted right behind his rival and ran over a Ferrari wheel gun left in the Mexican's path. Sainz avoided any penalty for this, but the FIA will undoubtedly take a dim view of Ferrari for their mistake, with the governing body well known for their strict views on pit lane safety.

The lead Red Bull and Ferrari drivers soon followed suit, with Verstappen and Leclerc pitting from the front two places in far more routine pit stops. With their rivals having opted for an early swapping of rubber, the two Mercedes drivers inherited P1 and P2, and it soon became apparent that the German team was looking at making it a one-stop race. If they could pull it off, Hamilton and Russell suddenly had become credible threats to Verstappen's chances of victory.

The Silver Arrows finally made their stops at Lap 30 and Lap 32, and they immediately made their fresh tire advantage known. Equipped with Pirelli's hard compound, the pair chased down and passed Perez with DRS assistance, showing how far Mercedes have come in a disappointing season. With their pace, they would be comfortably ahead of Verstappen and Leclerc after the leaders took their second pit stop, and victory would belong to Mercedes if Max or Charles couldn't overtake on track.

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Unfortunately for Mercedes, misfortune for Yuki Tsunoda would destroy their strategic advantage as an AlphaTauri mechanical failure offered a lifeline for Verstappen. Tsunoda came to a stop on track, and Leclerc pitted, thinking there would be a Safety Car slowdown. However, the Japanese racer got his car running again and trundled around to the pit lane, meaning Leclerc couldn't benefit from a so-called 'cheap' pit stop. Then, one lap later, Tsunoda stopped again, but this time terminally, triggering a Virtual Safety Car.

The slowdown allowed Verstappen to pit without losing much time, and he re-emerged in the lead instead of falling behind the two Mercedes. Mercedes responded by pitting their duo for a new set of medium tires, knowing they wouldn't lose any places, but suddenly the race had swayed in Verstappen's favor.

Another Safety Car period soon followed. Valtteri Bottas stopped on the pit straight, and the race director called a full Safety Car to help retrieve the stranded Alfa Romeo. Verstappen pitted for soft tires, but Hamilton stayed out and took the lead, albeit on old Pirellis. However, it would be a decision that would cause issues for the Briton later as other podium contenders used the Safety Car period to swap onto the red-walled soft tire.

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Although Sainz had fallen behind thanks to his earlier pit stop issues, he was about to have more woes thanks to his team. Like most drivers, Sainz pitted under the Safety Car, but Ferrari let him leave his pit box right into the path of Fernando Alonso's Alpine, and Alonso had to brake sharply to avoid a crash. The stewards didn't take long to issue a five-second penalty to Sainz, concluding another miserable Sunday, as his penalty eventually relegated him to P8.

Hamilton led the pack around the final banked corner once the Safety Car period ended but fell back to P2 before Turn 1. Verstappen's superior grip had the Red Bull racer ease past his 2021 title rival to take the lead and send the home crowd into pandemonium. Hamilton's old tires also let Russell and Leclerc have easy overtakes in the final laps. The frustrated Brit ended up in P4 and off the podium after looking like a possible winner earlier in the race.

The win, Verstappen's fourth in a row, means the championship is even closer to being wrapped up before the season finale. With seven rounds to go, there doesn't seem to be anything stopping Verstappen from winning all the remaining races, thanks to his and Red Bull's current advantage over the competition. The final European round of 2022 comes this weekend at the Italian Grand Prix, and the Dutch driver might break all the Tifosi hearts with his current form when he turns up at Monza.