Saturday’s prelude (qualifying) to the 2022 Dutch Grand Prix drew significant contrast from the prior weekend at Spa in Belgium. As you’ll recall, Verstappen was a full 1.8 seconds clear of Mercedes in qualifying. To put that in American sporting terms, it’s like a football game that ends at 50 to 3—a complete blowout. And that’s just the nature of Red Bull’s straight line speed. Fortunately, the Circuit Zandvoort in Holland is a stark contrast, where drivers rarely even see eighth gear. Instead, it’s characterized by banked turns and a series of technical corners, such that driver skill really comes into play when cars are properly setup with enough downforce. Tire degradation also appears to be an issue, which plays to Mercedes’ strengths.
What we witnessed throughout the practice sessions and qualifying was that the top three teams—Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes—each had good pace and would be separated by mere hundreds over the course of this short F1 lap. The Ferrari showed it was the superior car in terms of how it handled Zandvoort, especially tricky turn three with its awkward braking zone, steep banking at the apex and on the edge of track limits and then an aggressive curb to avoid on the exit. On this basis, Leclerc should have secured pole position, but a mistake in sector two cost him and Verstappen edged him by mere hundredths on what was also an imperfect lap.
The big disappointment for the Mercedes team and fans alike was Checo’s spin and yellow flag in Q3, which negated the final laps of pretty everyone save for Red Bull and Ferrari. Nevertheless, this leaves each of the three competitive teams starting first through sixth. With Ferrari two and three, it could set them up for a game of chess with Red Bull, especially if Leclerc gets a good start and manages to overtake Verstappen on the first lap. If Ferrari drop the ball, which has been the trend, then the door opens for Hamilton and possibly even Russell to come through with podiums.
The grid shuffle for 2023 aka silly season also made progress this week with McLaren confirming a two-year deal for Oscar Piastri to replace outgoing Riccardo. This leaves three or four potential seats open. Alpine for sure, which appears to be a lock for Gasly, and then Williams (Latifi), Haas (Schumacher), and Gasly’s AlphaTauri seat are still up for grabs. Mercedes reserve driver, Dutchman Nyck de Vries, has the best shot at Williams given the team’s ties to (and reliance on) Mercedes and Toto Wolff. Though I’d prefer to see Riccardo get that seat. I can’t recall when there have been so many seats open at this point in the season, so this horse trading game in F1 will be exciting to watch over the coming weeks.
As for race predictions, the smart money is certainly on Verstappen and Red Bull. The X-factor is that Leclerc has a highly competitive machine and nothing to lose through turns one, two and three. He could leave Max no choice but to back out or crash. And if the 2021 season is any indication, “Mad Max” always opts for the crash. But now he has the title all-but locked up, and he’s seemingly matured as driver. Still, you have to remember the fable of the frog and the scorpion. In this case, both drivers are taken out, and the race opens up to Sainz, Hamilton and Russell.
On that final note, one big question is whether Russell will have the pace to challenge Hamilton and how the team might react to that scenario both in terms of each driver’s strategy and if team orders come into play. Based on how he’s been driving lately, I don’t feel Perez will be a factor…at least not a positive one. Any way you slice it, there is more than enough drama heading into the 2022 Dutch Grand Prix. Let’s hope some of it actually plays out and we don’t just see Verstappen win from pole while leading every lap of the race.