Red Bull Motorsports
Not so long ago, when a young (younger?) Max Verstappen lay down his head on his pillow at night, his dreams probably went like this: have a home Grand Prix packed with orange-clad partisan Dutch fans, win it in style, send an entire country into delirium and lead the Formula One world championship as a result. Sounds great, right? But what if the reality was even sweeter?
A weekend crowd of more than 200,000 people, 99 percent of whom seemed to be wearing an orange t-shirt, waving an orange flag or brandishing an orange flare, raucously cheered every lap. At the end of the race, their man was back on the top step of the podium and in the lead of the title chase again.
Yes, this win was worth 25 points like any other, but F1's first visit to Zandvoort since 1985 will go down as one of the most memorable weekends of Verstappen's season no matter what happens from here. And not just for Max, either.
A classic circuit with a modern twist, sparkling sunshine after the dampened disappointment of Belgium a week previously, a party-like atmosphere fuelled by F1, local DJ's blasting dance music and perhaps an adult beverage or three, it all combined to create the best Grand Prix vibe for as long as most paddock regulars can remember.
Twenty drivers took to the track on Sunday afternoon, but the crowd had eyes for only two – Verstappen on pole, and main title rival Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) alongside him on the front row.
With overtaking set to be at a premium around the fast, flowing and narrow layout, the race could be defined in the first 10 seconds. After Verstappen nailed the start, the race was under his control, the home hero relinquishing the lead for just eight laps following his first pit stop.
You didn't even need to see where Verstappen was on track; you could hear the roar of the crowd every time he passed a grandstand on the 4.3km layout. When the job was complete after 72 laps, bedlam – and plenty of orange flare smoke – ensued.
Here's how a magical Sunday for Verstappen – and a genuinely exciting race up and down the grid – unfolded.
Max's 'amazing day'
Just how popular is Verstappen at home? Before a wheel was turned in anger at Zandvoort, Verstappen's Thursday track walk drew a squabbling pack of photographers, a mass of cheering fans in the grandstands and even a queue of marshals seeking signatures and selfies. All while race day was still three days away.
Such pressure could make anyone wilt, but Verstappen took it in his stride. Even in qualifying, where he missed a gearshift after running over the kerbs coming out of Turn 3 and then had a DRS malfunction as he exited the final corner, he still denied Hamilton by 0.038 seconds for his sixth pole in the past seven races.
Mercedes turned up the pressure strategically on Sunday, leaving Valtteri Bottas out on track longer in the first stint of the race in an attempt to back Verstappen into Hamilton's clutches after the first pit stops. Still, Verstappen dealt with Bottas decisively on Lap 31, built a lead with enough margin to make a second and final stop nine laps later, and controlled things from there.
Such was the pace of the race – 72 laps in 90 minutes – that every driver besides Hamilton (second) and Bottas (third) was lapped by the flying Dutchman, who achieved the rare feat of winning in the country of his birth (Belgium) and the country he represents (the Netherlands) in seven days.
His seventh win of the year saw him reclaim the championship lead by three points over Hamilton.
"It's incredible," Verstappen said after the race, his voice straining to be heard over the din of the fervent fans.
"The expectations were high heading into the weekend, and it's never easy to fulfil that, but I'm so happy to win here and to take the lead in the championship. It's just an amazing day.
"The start was important, I think we did that well, and Mercedes tried to make it very difficult for us. But we countered them all the time very well. We can be pleased with the whole team performance."
Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner agreed that the opening 10 seconds were critical.
"A race like that is never easy, and the most important thing was to get the start," Horner said.
"We knew that with the options Mercedes had, they were going to split (strategies), and they did exactly that. The most important part of the race for us was for Max to make that pass on Valtteri, and he did that quickly. After that, we were able to cover Lewis.
"It's a tough competition, and they're fighting over tenths of a second every lap. So, an amazing performance."
Checo's recovery mission pays off
Verstappen's team-mate Sergio Pérez was one of the few drivers to have never raced in any category at Zandvoort before the weekend, but it wasn't his inexperience that had him in trouble for race day. The Mexican pilot was delayed by traffic getting out of the pits for his last run in qualifying, didn’t start his final lap in time and was knocked out in Q1, falling to 16th place.
The team elected to replace his engine for a fourth power unit for the season, which incurred a penalty and saw him start from the pit lane. At a track where passing is at a premium and starting dead last, it seemed like a road to nowhere for Pérez, even more so after he flat-spotted his hard tyres early in what was supposed to be a long first stint.
With the odds stacked against him, Pérez pitted – and then gritted his teeth. One overtake after another after another earned him Driver of the Day from the sport's fans, and he muscled his way up the order to finish eighth and score four world championship points to retain fifth in the overall standings.
"Every overtake was very much on the limit; it was so risky," Pérez said.
"We have a new engine, so we've taken that penalty. Now it's looking forward and looking ahead."
Gasly grows in confidence
In a race where the top three were in a league of their own, Scuderia AlphaTauri shone for those outside of the podium places. Pierre Gasly tied his season-best time as fourth in qualifying into fourth in the race, with his second-best result of what has been a thoroughly consistent season for the Frenchman.
Gasly barely put a foot wrong all race. The highlight of a relatively lonely Sunday afternoon drive came when he passed two-time world champion Fernando Alonso (Alpine) around the outside of Turn 1.
"Right behind the two Mercedes and Max is pretty much the best we can hope for," Gasly said after improving to eighth in the world championship standings.
"I enjoyed a lot because when the car is flying like that, it's always something special. The car seems to work everywhere in all conditions, and there's a really good mojo in all the team."
Team-mate Yuki Tsunoda had a more difficult afternoon, the Japanese rookie retiring with a power unit issue on Lap 49 when he was running outside of the points in 14th place.
Ferrari strike, Kubica's surprise
In the constructors' championship, the battle for third has waxed and waned between Ferrari and McLaren all season. It was advantage Ferrari at Zandvoort after Charles Leclerc (fifth) and Carlos Sainz (seventh) earned 16 points for the Scuderia to reclaim third in the standings from McLaren, who had a muted afternoon with Lando Norris (10th) and Daniel Ricciardo (11th) managing a solitary point between them.
Elsewhere, Robert Kubica was a surprise starter at Alfa Romeo after Kimi Raikkonen, who announced he would be retiring at the end of the season, missed the remainder of the event from Saturday onwards after a positive COVID-19 test.
Kubica, who hadn't raced since he was on the grid for Williams at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix of 2019, finished 15th on Sunday, one place behind teammate Antonio Giovinazzi.
Monza = magic
In for the long haul AND up for a sprint? Both extremes are in play for the next round of the season, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on September 12.
As the third leg of a triple-header to well and truly blow out the cobwebs from the summer break, F1 will again employ its Sprint Qualifying format after the initiative debuted to much intrigue at the British Grand Prix in July.
Saturday at the Parco di Monza will feature an 18-lap sprint to set the grid for Sunday's 53-lap race proper, with regular qualifying around the famous la pista magica (the magic track) taking place on Friday evening under a canopy of trees and beside the circuit's evocative old banking, last used for F1 in 1961.
'Becoming Max Verstappen' is a special new episode of podcast Beyond the Ordinary, and charts the rise of the F1 hotshot with help from those who know him best. Listen below...