Formula One races ought to be won or lost through a combination of three variables: driver skill, car performance (machinery) and team strategy. When a team executes each of these in superior fashion, a win should be the result. Unfortunately, there’s a forth factor that comes into play, which is out of anyone’s control: luck.
For the first half of the Dutch Grand Prix, team strategies dictated how the race unfolded, as the three top teams—Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes—all started well from P1 to P6. But Mercedes took an alternative approach by starting on the medium tires. This implied the possibility of a one-stop strategy, whereas the others on soft tires would likely have to go with a two-stop given the rates of tire degradation.
The first big shakeup happened on lap 15 (of 72), when Ferrari botched Carlos Sainz’s pitstop. The crew just wasn’t ready. He was stationary for a whopping 12.7 seconds. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Perez had to drive over a Ferrari tire gun when exiting his pit box. This effectively put Sainz off the podium, and it was down to the remaining five drivers. Though, again, Perez was off the pace all weekend, so it was really down to four: Verstappen, Leclerc, Hamilton and Russell.
Leclerc pitted for medium tires on lap 18. Verstappen followed on lap 19. Which put Hamilton and Russell in first and second, respectively. Max would eventually overtake Russell on fresher tires, and then each Mercedes pitted for hard tires on laps 30 and 32. At this point in the race, it appeared Mercedes had the superior strategy. Verstappen would have to pit again, and both Mercedes had closed the gap enough to put him behind them by about seven seconds after that pitstop. Max would then have to chase and pass both Mercedes for the win. It seemed it would be a Verstappen-Hamilton battle for first and a Leclerc-Russell battle for third. And then luck came into play…twice.
First, Yuki Tsunoda came to a stop on track, causing a yellow flag, and then made it back to the pits for a tire change (and seatbelt adjustment?) only to exit the pits and immediately stop, which caused a Virtual Safety Car (VSC). This enabled Verstappen to get a cheap pit stop at a time when he critically needed it. I’m not prone to conspiracy theories, but AlphaTauri is Red Bull’s junior team, and that timing was ideal for them.
With 14 laps to go, the Alfa Romeo power unit of Valtteri Bottas called it quits on the pit straight, triggering a full safety car. Of course, this makes for the cheapest possible pitstop and leads to a rolling restart. Hamilton and Russell both led Verstappen at this point, and the question was whether Max could overtake both cars in the remaining laps for the win. Red Bull made the call to pit Max for soft tires, which would give him a massive pace advantage on the restart. Russell then made his own call to pit for soft tires, which dropped him behind Max. Ultimately, it proved to be the right call for Russell, personally, and perhaps not the optimal call for the team. This is one of the unique aspects of the individual versus team game in Formula One. In the end, though, Leclerc likely would have passed both Mercedes, leaving Hamilton and Russell third and forth respectively instead of Russell’s second place and Hamilton’s fourth. With the benefit of hindsight, Hamilton should have also pitted for soft tires—a tricky double stack—which likely would have put both Mercedes drivers on the podium.
My feeling is that something needs to be done to mitigate the F1 luck factor. Team strategy is the most dynamic aspect of any race. It’s the variable with the most variability on any given Sunday. When unforeseen factors randomly favor one team over another, there should be methods in place to re-level the playing field. If pitstops under safety cars and VSCs came with time penalties, it would give drivers and strategists a lot more to think about in making that call. Whereas currently, these stops are no-brainers.
While F1 fans voted Verstappen as driver of the day, I’d say George Russell is more deserving. He started from P6 and finished P2. He drove a flawless race and independently made a strategic call to go to soft tires during the safety car—demonstrating a lot of maturity and race awareness—which enabled him to overtake his teammate, the seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton. He now finds himself fourth in the driver’s standings with a mere 13-point deficit to both Leclerc and Perez, who are tied on points in second and third. “Mr. Consistency” continues his record of finishing top five in every race he’s finished in 2022.
Meanwhile, Mercedes further closed the gap with Ferrari to just 30 points in the constructors standings. However, the high-speed nature of Monza next weekend will not favor the Mercs unless they come with upgrades that offer more straight-line speed. And despite Ferrari’s challenges this season, there’s no better race in which to get it all right, as the Scuderia winning at Monza in front of the Tifosi is what every F1 fan (hardcore partisans notwithstanding) wants to see.
Bottom line: Mercedes had its first win of 2022 in sight, but it was undone by strokes of bad luck that were out of their control. This is an encouraging development for the remainder of the season. Nevertheless, the 2022 Dutch Grand Prix was exciting, unpredictable and dramatic from start to finish, and that’s how F1 racing should be.