From the stamping of feet and the crowd cheering until they were hoarse, the Zandvoort circuit echoed as much to the roar of the fans as the roar of the engines as Max Verstappen took pole position for the Dutch Grand Prix. He had to be at his best, pushed to the limit by Lewis Hamilton, who put in a mighty challenge to be second as this cauldron of orange relished the return of F1 to the Netherlands for the first time in 36 years.
The 70,000 fans had almost all come to see their hero Verstappen and the Red Bull driver duly delivered with no little panache. He had the pace on Hamilton but the world champion too found something extra. His Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas was in third, with all the drivers revelling in the glorious challenge presented by this circuit in the dunes on the edge of the North Sea. The race may be a cat and mouse affair with overtaking here very tricky but could yet prove compelling nonetheless.
Hamilton finished just under four-hundredths down on Verstappen’s fastest time of 1min 8.885sec, a mere whisker that did not detract from his obvious enjoyment at driving this distinctly old-school circuit. “What a track, it is absolutely incredible driving this track with the banked corners,” he said. “Today was one of the qualifying sessions I enjoyed most, qualifying here with a light car is phenomenal, it was so close at the end.”
Verstappen in turn acknowledged what it meant to have such enormous support at his first home race. “It’s been incredible and driving at home with all these fans, they were going crazy every time I crossed the line,” he said. “To see so much orange and we are not even at the maximum capacity allowed, it’s an incredible atmosphere.”
Verstappen has raced here before, in the Formula 3 Masters event in 2014 when he took pole, led every lap and won, at 16 the youngest driver to do so. However, the circuit has been upgraded since then with the banking in turn three, Hugenholtz, increased to 19 degrees and the addition of 18-degree banking at the final corner, Arie Luyendyk, which is named after the Dutch double Indy 500 winner. To put that in perspective, the fearsome banking on the old Monza configuration last used in 1961 is 21 degrees.
Verstappen handled the new challenge masterfully, hurtling out of Hugenholtz (itself named after the former circuit manager John Hugenholtz, who designed Suzuka) through the fast sequence of turns four and five before nailing the tricky right-hander Scheivlak. The pace he carried into the final two sectors from here was vital.
He threaded the needle on the unforgiving circuit to perfection. With a narrow track and old-school grass-and-gravel run-offs, straying from the island has proved costly all weekend but Verstappen had it nailed. On his first hot lap in Q3 he was fastest through every sector, flicking from apex to the very edge of the track and holding the rear twitching beneath him as he pushed to the limit. It was an immense lap, a full three-tenths up on Bottas and Hamilton.
With the track evolving as the rubber went down, the final laps were crucial. On his second run Verstappen found even more, being particularly strong in the last two sectors, and he needed it, with Hamilton into the groove. He matched Verstappen’s first time exactly and said he could give no more and that he almost ran out of road on the final corner.
The championship is finely poised: Hamilton leads Verstappen by three points and believes that despite the challenge ahead there was still more to come on Sunday.
“I have no doubt it is going to be tough tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not a track that you can particularly overtake at so it is going to be strategy tomorrow, how you utilise the tyres and the start will be fun.”
Every session at Zandvoort thus far has been stopped for red flags, including twice in qualifying, and the race will certainly not escape multiple use of the safety car at very least. It will likely turn the 72 laps into a complex and intriguing affair. F1’s last winner here was Niki Lauda in 1985 and the serious business of following in his footsteps is still to come.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen did not take part in qualifying having tested positive for Covid-19. He was replaced by the team’s reserve driver Robert Kubica, who qualified in 18th place.
Pierre Gasly was in fourth for AlphaTauri and Charles Leclerc in fifth for Ferrari, a place ahaed of his teammate Carlos Sainz. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi was a very impressive seventh, with Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso in eighth and ninth for Alpine. McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo round out the top 10.
George Russell spun off in Q2 but returned his car to the pits and finished in 11th. When the session restarted a lap had not been completed when his teammate Nicholas Latifi also went off, ending the session and he was 14th.
It was costly for McLaren’s Lando Norris, who had yet to set a quick time and went out in 13th. Lance Stroll was in 12th for Aston Martin and Yuki Tsunoda in 15th for AlphaTauri.
Sergio Pérez had a shocker, going out in Q1 in 16th for Red Bull after he failed to make the line in time to put in his final lap, while Sebastian Vettel was in 17th for Aston Martin. Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin were in 19th and 20th for Haas.