The Dutch Grand Prix was the closest thing Mercedes has come to winning a Formula 1 race this season, but the team has been short of wins over Max Verstappen and Red Bull. It was ultimately the faster car and stronger strategy that won at Zandvoort, but after the race there was a series of “what if” questions about whether Mercedes could have won with a little more luck or a better strategy.
Lewis Hamilton’s frustration with the situation was made clear on the radio when he sent a scolding message to his team, for which he later apologized. In the final 12 laps after restarting the safety car, he dropped from first to fourth as Mercedes bet on a tire strategy that didn’t pay off.
The situation in this final part of the race, when Hamilton on old tires defended against Verstappen on fresh soft, had uncanny parallels to the season finale in Abu Dhabi last year, when Verstappen snatched the championship from Hamilton. The result of the race at Zandvoort followed the same trend with Verstappen coming out on top, but it would be unfair to blame Mercedes for not learning from its mistakes in a race where it failed to live up to expectations and put itself in first place in the fight for victory.
Ultimately, given the flawless performance of Verstappen and Red Bull, it’s hard to imagine a course of events where Mercedes could win the Dutch Grand Prix, but there are clear signs that the eight-time constructors’ champions are drawing near.
Why didn’t Mercedes put Hamilton under the safety car?
In hindsight, Mercedes should have fielded Hamilton due to soft tires during the late safety car period. It is highly unlikely that this would have resulted in a victory, but would almost certainly have secured a double podium, with Hamilton returning home in second and teammate George Russell in third. Both cars had time to pit and reunite ahead of fourth-placed Charles Leclerc regardless of Ferrari’s decision to change tires or stay out of the way, but instead Mercedes took a chance with Hamilton’s car.
The reasoning was clear. In front of the safety car, Verstappen rode to a comfortable win, but when Valtteri Bottas’ Alfa Romeo pitted due to a powertrain problem, the race was wide open. All teams were faced with the choice of whether to pit under the resulting safety car, and Red Bull, knowing the pace advantage that fresh tires would give, decided to sacrifice the race lead to put Verstappen on soft tyres. It was the right decision, but team boss Christian Horner admitted after the race that it was not easy.
“It was a big challenge,” Horner said. “Your home driver is in the lead in front of 105,000 people and you decide to fight him over soft tires and give way on the track behind two Mercedes.”
This left Mercedes with a dilemma: do what Verstappen did and stay in second place on the same tires as Red Bull, or stay on the sidelines, take position on the track ahead of the field and try to defend the position on slower tires.
Given that overtaking at Zandvoort is not easy – it takes more than a second of pace advantage to attempt a pass – Hamilton could hardly hold on to Red Bull. Hamilton’s midsize tires have only done five race laps since his second stop under an earlier virtual safety car, so Mercedes likely calculated they might be in good enough shape to give Verstappen a chance on soft tyres, especially if Hamilton can keep Red Bull. gulf immediately after reboot.
Mercedes discussed the potential of such a scenario at a pre-race strategy briefing and the drivers agreed with team management to take risks if there was a chance of winning the race. It was with this in mind that Mercedes supported Hamilton on the go.
“We thought we would have an environment with five racing laps plus a track position and we made that decision,” explained Wolf. “I don’t think that on a par with the same tire we could overtake Red Bull in straight line speed.
“We have seen it since [Carlos] Sainz that we can’t bypass him at the beginning, so it was a challenge. Every single day of my life, I would rather risk everything to win a race than secure second and third places.”
Initially, it looked like Mercedes would also keep Russell on track, giving Hamilton some buffer at the restart to maintain their lead over Verstappen. However, Russell then radioed the team for soft tires as the cars prepared to follow the safety car through the pit lane. Mercedes claims they were already weighing their options with Russell before the driver himself called and ended up coming to the same conclusion to split the strategy between the cars around the same time.
By driving Russell, he deprived Hamilton of the buffer at the restart, but Mercedes hoped that Russell on fresh tires could make life difficult for Verstappen by attacking Red Bull.
“We just split the strategy,” Wolf said. “If we didn’t use both tires on the same tire we would have a blocker and two cars in front, but if the new tire was really much faster then both cars could be eaten, also maybe Leclerc and everyone else who came from behind.
“So we split the strategy, kept the position on the track, and maybe the car is fast enough to do that and not make any other decision.”
Ultimately, Mercedes’ plan failed instantly as Verstappen drove past Hamilton on the restart. A Mercedes driver later revealed that he had used the wrong engine setting before the restart, which apparently contributed to his poor performance as they drove straight through the pit lane, but he insisted that this was not a determining factor in the loss of position.
“I was late to go into racing mode, but they were very fast on the straights,” said Hamilton.
It’s also worth noting that Hamilton chose to initiate the restart before the final corner rather than after it, which is what the lead driver is allowed to do. In a Formula Two race earlier in the day, race winner Felipe Drugovic delayed a similar restart until he was much closer to the control line, giving his rivals less of a chance to line up overtaking on their way to the first corner, albeit at the cost of piling up in the center of the field, as some of the distant riders misjudged the situation.
It’s impossible to say whether Hamilton would have kept the lead with this tactic, but the combination of the wrong engine mode and the timing of the restart certainly increased Verstappen’s chances of getting into the first corner. very quickly it became clear that Hamilton’s lack of speed on his midsize tires for the following laps would have made him a sitting duck for Verstappen on soft tires at some point before the checkered flag.
Would Hamilton have won without Tsunoda’s virtual safety car?
The more interesting question is whether Hamilton would have won if the race had been played without a virtual safety car or safety car. From the start of the race, Mercedes opted for a “one-stop” strategy, starting both cars at medium speeds, while its immediate rivals opted for soft ones. Having run longer in the race and completed one fewer pit stop, Hamilton was on track to take the lead from Verstappen if the Red Bull driver made his second pit stop under normal racing conditions.
As it turned out, Yuki Tsunoda stopped on the track and called the virtual safety car, which gave Red Bull the opportunity to complete their second pit stop and keep the lead. At the time, Tsunoda’s unusual resignation raised eyebrows, as the AlphaTauri stop at the track essentially gave Red Bull’s sister team the win, but a clearer explanation of what happened to Tsunoda’s car came after the race.
The Japanese driver first stopped on the track, believing that the rear wheel was not properly installed on his car after the pit stop, and began to loosen his seat belts to get out. The team, believing the wheel was on correctly, ordered him back to the pits, where they refastened his seat belts, installed a new set of tires, and let him go again. When he returned, Tsunoda still felt the car was behaving strangely, at which point a differential problem was diagnosed and he was told to stop on the track. It was an unfortunate turn of events for both Tsunoda and Mercedes’ strategy.
However, if the race had been run without a virtual safety car, Mercedes expected it would have resulted in a thrilling showdown in the last laps, with Verstappen overtaking Hamilton on fresher tyres.
“The simulation says Max should have been eight seconds behind us with 20 laps to go,” Wolf said. “Perhaps at that time he would have been on hard and I think we would have had every chance of winning.
“The race planner said victory is close. Difficult but close. He would have caught up with us with about six laps to go. It was very close.”
But while Mercedes expected Verstappen to go 20 laps to go and switch to hard tyres, Red Bull claims they actually wanted to go longer in the second stint and switch to soft ones for an all-out attack at the end. Team boss Christian Horner went so far as to say that Tsunoda’s virtual safety car, which made it possible to get into the pit lane and get ahead of Hamilton, was actually less desirable than letting the race run normally.
“VSC made life a little more difficult because the speed of the Mercedes on hard tires seemed pretty fast,” he said. “But they had a huge amount of time to do it. At that point, we were probably going to go back to soft tyres.
“We knew we would probably lose ground on the track, but we had a shifting pace. Then the VM came along and we switched to hard tires because of how we saw it work, which again just protected position on the track. for Max.
It’s a pity the race didn’t end, leaving former championship rivals Hamilton and Verstappen pitted against each other for the first time this season, but Mercedes also promised to get back in the running for the win. Furthermore,…