Dutch Grand Prix conclusions: Max Verstappen’s Lewis Hamilton effect; Leclerc in crisis?

Oliver Harden
2023 Dutch Grand Prix conclusions.

2023 Dutch Grand Prix conclusions.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen equalled Sebastian Vettel’s 2013 record of nine consecutive F1 wins in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort.

The reigning World Champion was joined on the podium at his home race by Fernando Alonso, who secured Aston Martin’s first top-three finish since Canada in June, and Alpine driver Pierre Gasly, who sprayed champagne for the first time since Baku 2021.

Here are our conclusions from the Netherlands…

Max Verstappen mania is reminiscent of Lewis Hamilton’s Silverstone effect

Hang on.

Was that – no, surely not – a little flicker of emotion on Verstappen’s face as the Dutch national anthem rang around Zandvoort for the third year in a row?

Nah. Can’t have been. Not when cutting the cord to his emotions – never soaking up the atmosphere, never getting carried away, never driving the situation but always the racetrack, the lap, the race in front of him –  is such a strength of his.

Yet if most of his victories in this record-equalling run have seemed to blur into one, this is the win Verstappen will remember when he is crowned a three-time World Champion in the coming weeks – a car for all seasons piloted by a driver for every single race without fail.

Verstappen’s latest home win was far more complicated than the previous two as he had to overcome rain both at the start and at the end, yet in reality the weather gods could have thrown wind, fire and ice at him too and still there would have been no stopping Max winning at Zandvoort.

He has that kind of groove at this place, a bond not seen between a racing driver and a single circuit since Verstappen’s great rival, Lewis Hamilton, won at Silverstone seven times in eight years between 2014 and 2021 (let’s not go over that last one again, please…).

The mixed conditions, in fact, only served to underline Verstappen’s superior touch and feel for a racing car to the opposition, particularly in comparison to his increasingly muddled team-mate Sergio Perez.

As Perez scurried into the pits for intermediate tyres at the very first hint of rain on Laps 1 and 60, he and the team simply not trusting his technique to ride out the storm, Verstappen continued to circulate with slicks on an increasingly treacherous track – the greatest of all driving challenges.

“If you can live with it, stay out,” Verstappen’s race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, informed his driver in those early moments knowing full well that if anyone could live with it, it was him.

No, you won’t find Verstappen crowdsurfing or scaling the pit wall as Hamilton, F1’s greatest showman, did annually at Silverstone during his peak years.

And, no, you won’t hear him launching into a passionate-to-the-point-of-tearful, Ayrton Senna-style soliloquy about the “human heat” driving him on in his home race.

You won’t even hear him echoing Nigel Mansell’s claim that competing at home gives him a welcome boost of an extra few tenths.

He is just Max Verstappen, the racing driver put on this earth to win races whether they happen to be in the Netherlands or anywhere else.

But rest assured – deep down beneath that cold, hard professional racing driver exterior – Max feels it too.

Fernando Alonso has made a career out of doing the opposite to everyone else

Lap 1, Turn 3 told you everything you would ever need to know about Fernando Alonso.

As everyone else went high, Fernando chose to go low. It only gained him one position and was hardly the defining moment of his race as he secured his seventh podium finish of the season, but offered an incredible insight into the way his brain works.

It was reminiscent of a scene from his last F1 victory at Barcelona 2013 and that famous overtake on Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen at the long, fast Turn 3 right-hander on the first lap.

As the cars ahead filed into the corner nose to tail on the traditional racing line, Alonso had the presence of mind to position himself on the outside of the corner as if dancing to a different beat entirely.

For better or for worse, it was ever thus with Fernando Alonso.

When exactly, we wonder, did he decide he would try his luck there on the opening lap? Saturday night, Sunday morning or a week last Tuesday, perhaps? How many, if any, previous starts did he watch back and analyse before he made up his mind?

Whatever, it is tempting to imagine the view through Alonso’s visor on the starting grid at Zandvoort knowing that, whatever else happened in front of him, he just had to be on the outside of Turn 2 to take the inside into 3 on that first lap – because he already knew nobody else would even think to go there.

There has been a working theory for some years – particularly following his trips to the unique Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the end of the last decade – that Alonso places a greater premium than most on feeding his front wing a stream of clean air in racing situations rather than sitting in the turbulent wake of the car in front.

His creativity in combat affords him a broader range of options and that was likely what Alonso was referring to when he claimed to have taught Hamilton a trick or two in Hungary in 2021, when the old warrior somehow kept the irresistible Mercedes behind for lap after lap.

There was far more to Alonso’s drive than that moment, of course, and it was notable that in the race’s bookends in the wet only he could live with – and, at least initially, was even more at ease than – Verstappen in the wet.

But in that tiny little snapshot from Turn 3, you could almost see the cogs turning.

Charles Leclerc is in crisis and 2023 cannot end soon enough for Ferrari

Having fallen for so long in 2023, finally hitting rock bottom this weekend may actually come as some relief to Charles Leclerc and Ferrari.

It promises to be a different story at Monza next weekend when, given the limitations of the Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin cars, the Ferraris may well emerge as Verstappen’s greatest threat.

But joy at home would only paper over the cracks at Ferrari, and if the Prancing Horse’s home round goes anything like their Dutch GP weekend the Tifosi would be entitled to turn their backs whenever Leclerc and Carlos Sainz fly past.

In a season of sorry sights – the engine failure in Bahrain, the grid penalty in Jeddah, the first-lap DNF in Melbourne, the two crashes in 24 hours in Miami, the total failure to make the tyres work in Barcelona and the needless Q2 exit in Canada – none were more predictable than the image of Leclerc’s car in the wall in the closing minutes of Q3 at Zandvoort.

On a weekend when Ferrari were utterly dismal, on a circuit so rewarding of commitment, of course Leclerc would be the one to be caught out pushing his luck a little too far.

He has become a walking red flag in these situations, such is his desperation to make something – anything – happen in a car still way below the standard to compete at the front.

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It was noted in this column after Canada that somewhere along the way Leclerc lost the ability to be self-critical that served him so well in his early years, having realised after Monaco 2022 – the turning point in his relationship with the team – that it is far easier to pin all the blame on Ferrari instead.

Leclerc let them have it once again over team radio after a scare in the early stages of qualifying and most were braced another barrage after his slow switch to inters on Lap 1 – but no, for it emerged Charles had only told them he was pitting after already entering one of the shortest pit lanes of the season.

That little revelation hinted that as much as people enjoy kicking Ferrari – and Leclerc himself has developed a taste for that sport over the last 12 months – it’s not always all the team’s fault.

Leclerc’s lowest point came on a weekend Ferrari revealed they will pursue a totally new car concept for next season, having ignored the warning signs of late 2022 and overestimated the ultimate potential of the current chassis.

It only confirmed that this has been a wasted season for team and driver, both of whom have lost their way and must start again from scratch in 2024.

Daniel Ricciardo’s future is now in Liam Lawson’s hands

The hand injury sustained by Daniel Ricciardo in practice on Friday afternoon, coming just as his F1 comeback was expected to step up a gear, was a particularly cruel twist of fate.

And the irony that it came in a crash effectively caused by Oscar Piastri, exactly a year and two days after Ricciardo announced he would be leaving McLaren to make way for his fellow Australian, was not lost on anyone.

His performances in his first two races back before the summer break were mixed, but it wasn’t so much what Daniel did as what he said that offered hope for the future.

As noted here after Hungary, the statements of Ricciardo and Red Bull together demonstrated a clear understanding of where he had gone wrong at McLaren, who had flooded his head with data and forced upon him bad habits that until very recently he had been struggling to shake off.

Ricciardo accepted that he needed to be reworked, rewired and pieced back together again and, in Red Bull and AlphaTauri combined, he found quite possibly the only group of people who understood him well enough to assist that process.

From that perspective at least, he had hit all the right notes and the humility that had deserted Ricciardo over recent years had returned, as though he had been transported back to his earliest days with Toro Rosso when there was still everything to gain.

How far, we wonder, might it have taken him? With Perez breathing a deep sigh of relief in the second Red Bull, there is a distinct possibility that we – that he – will now never know.

The argument against bringing Ricciardo back was that Red Bull already seemingly had their next ready-made F1 driver in Liam Lawson, described as an entertaining, attacking driver with car control to rival Gilles Villeneuve by those who’ve watched his junior career closely.

Red Bull’s decision to shuffle Lawson off to Super Formula in Japan for 2023, signing the Mercedes-affiliated Nyck de Vries instead, has been likened to their treatment of Pierre Gasly in 2017 – a sign that Helmut Marko and Co have lingering reservations over his true potential.

Yet what if Lawson, after a respectable debut in short-notice circumstances here, eliminates those remaining doubts and excels over the coming weeks? What if he does what Ricciardo did not and quickly matches or even establishes a clear advantage over Yuki Tsunoda, himself one of the understated stars of the season?

In that scenario it would be almost impossible from both a political and sporting perspective for AlphaTauri to take out Lawson and hand the car back to Ricciardo – unless they cease to be a race team of any substance and instead morph into a charity.

Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, meant well when he remarked on Saturday that Ricciardo could be back as soon as Singapore next month – but one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity and Ricciardo’s future now rests in the hands of Lawson.

“Nature will take its course,” Horner commented on the timescale of Ricciardo’s return.

Indeed it will…

Alex Albon might not like it, but he and Williams are a perfect match

In recent weeks certain sections of the media have pumped up Alex Albon as a potentially key player in the driver market over the next year or so.

Rumours link him with a return to the Red Bull system with a view to replacing Perez, even as a candidate to succeed Carlos Sainz at Ferrari, and we’re told that at least half the teams would quite like to sign him.

It is undeniable that he is now achieving the sort of results in a limited car which have secured drivers big moves in the recent past – but should Albon be slightly wary of throwing away what he currently has?

It has, over the course of this season, become clear that he and Williams are a perfect match. And who’s to say he could replicate this special synergy elsewhere?

It is now expected that Williams will thrive in the high-speed, low-downforce surroundings of Montreal, the new-look Melbourne and Monza. Not so much at small, compact Zandvoort with its max-downforce demands.

Yet it was here where Albon shone on Saturday in securing fourth place on the grid having earlier topped the Q1 times.

How to explain it? Partly through the very nature of this circuit, the narrow track and sweeping corners rewarding bravery and commitment.

And, in qualifying on Saturday, no driver – no, not even Max Verstappen in the Red Bull – looked as visibly brave and committed as Albon, the Williams for all its flaws and imperfections now an extension of himself.

Talk about a car and driver – and team – in perfect harmony…

Albon’s overachievements continue to attract inevitable parallels with his predecessor George Russell but there remains one crucial difference, beyond the fact that Alex has already had a shot with a leading team and was brutally exposed by Verstappen.

Whereas Russell was on an unstoppable upward trajectory even before he arrived in F1, able to do things his team-mates just couldn’t in that car, lesser drivers have shown a propensity to go with Albon on the team’s better days.

De Vries’ point-scoring debut while deputising for him at Monza a year ago, followed by his subsequent struggles at AlphaTauri in the first half of 2023, strongly supported the suggestion that even the most middling driver would be made to look quick in that Williams on a good weekend.

And, lest we forget, Logan Sargeant too was looking semi-respectable for a period at Zandvoort, reaching Q3 for the first time this season before stuffing the car into the barrier. Twice.

Exactly how much is it the car? And exactly how much is it Albon, refreshed and rehabilitated after his Red Bull experience? How to separate them?

Maybe, actually, it’s better if we don’t.

For all the talk of moving on to bigger and better things, this team and this driver are really very good for each other.

It would be a shame if Williams and Albon, the centrepiece of the James Vowles revolution, weren’t just left to keep growing together.

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