Red Bull driver Max Verstappen set pole position at the Dutch Grand Prix for the third successive year in a rain-affected qualifying session at Zandvoort.
The reigning World Champion is unbeaten at his home track since the event returned to the F1 calendar in 2021, with Verstappen joined on the front row by McLaren driver Lando Norris.
Here are the main winners and losers from the first qualifying session after the summer break…
It really does help that his home race just happens to be held at a circuit almost perfectly suited to Verstappen’s driving style.
Whereas other, lesser drivers with more abrupt inputs will, for instance, enter the banked Turn 3 still with load on the car from Turn 2 – see Carlos Sainz’s FP3 crash here in 2021 – Max will use that short section of track between the two corners to ‘flatten’ the car, draining as much of that load, that energy as possible to establish the ideal platform to turn into 3.
Then, across the remainder of the lap – through the rise and fall of the first sector and the long, winding turns of the middle part of the circuit – comes the sort of ‘proper racetrack’ corners where Verstappen always has, always will have an intrinsic edge over the likes of Sergio Perez.
How to explain a gap of 1.3 seconds over his team-mate? Different equipment? Favourable treatment?
Just raw skill and natural talent.
With Mercedes and Ferrari still woefully inconsistent and the Aston Martin challenge having long since faded, only one team/driver combination can be relied upon to live with Verstappen and Red Bull right now.
That team is McLaren and that driver is Lando Norris.
The final deficit of six tenths to Verstappen confirmed that talk of pole position was unrealistic, but Norris and McLaren – once again, as at Barcelona and Silverstone, thriving on the hardest possible tyre compounds in the Pirelli range – were always the ones most likely to cause an upset here.
When – if – Red Bull’s golden run ends, Norris and McLaren are best placed to take advantage.
Where has this come from?
Williams’s strong performances in Montreal and the new-look, high-speed Melbourne earlier this season were not entirely unexpected, but small, twisty, max-downforce Zandvoort?
All weekend you had expected other teams to step up, reality to bite and for them to eventually slide down the order, but still Williams – and Alex Albon – would not be moved.
Perhaps it can be explained, at least in part, by the nature of this circuit and its rewarding of bravery and commitment.
No driver this weekend – no, not even Max Verstappen in the Red Bull – has looked as visibly brave and committed as Albon, for whom the FW45 at this stage of the season is almost an extension of himself.
When a team, driver and car are in perfect harmony with each other, amazing things can happen.
That is the story of Williams and Alex Albon at Zandvoort 2023.
Following Lewis Hamilton’s latest early exit, at least one Mercedes has failed to reach Q3 in eight of the 16 qualifying sessions (including sprint shootouts) held so far in 2023.
The W13 car may not be exactly to the team’s liking… but it’s not that bad, is it? Not with George Russell a very good third on the grid.
As his own team boss preferred to point fingers at other drivers, Hamilton chose instead to own up and admit the Mercedes in his hands wasn’t quick enough, that the good feeling he’d had during opening practice on Friday had somehow deserted him.
That sort of thing is happening a little too often down at Mercedes these days.
Feast or famine, sunshine or showers, pole or pitiful.
It’s been one or the other with Charles Leclerc in 2023 and, with Ferrari dismal this weekend at a circuit that so visibly rewards bravery and commitment, perhaps it is no surprise that he was once again lured into pushing things just a little too far in a desperate attempt to make something happen.
The image of the number 16 Ferrari in the barriers, with its front-left hanging off, was yet another sorry sight in this season to forget.
When Haas dropped Mick Schumacher at the end of last season, the team were open in admitting that they just couldn’t afford his constant crashes against the backdrop of F1’s cost cap.
Could Williams be close to reaching the same point with Logan Sargeant?
This had been shaping up to be Sarge’s strongest weekend in F1 to date and he had just posted a time good enough for second in Q3 before his latest inelegant, unnecessary and untimely crash at Turn 2.
What should have been a breakthrough day ended with the same old questions about whether Williams’ American boy really is worth those mounting repair bills.
Oscar Piastri has picked a bad time to suffer the first truly difficult – let’s call it character-building – weekend of his F1 career.
The Australian shrugged off his mistake on Friday afternoon in that unworldly, unfazed way of his – simply saying his first big crash had to happen at some point – but the true effect of his lost track time potentially revealed itself when things stepped up a gear in Q3.
As McLaren team-mate Norris soared to second on the grid, Piastri was eight tenths back in P8 – ahead only of the lost pair Leclerc and Sargeant – having shown pace comparable to his team-mate in Q1 and Q2.
File this one under valuable learning experience.
Perez’s run of five races without a Q3 appearance may be an increasingly distant memory, helped by two consecutive podiums before the summer break, but his ballooning pace deficits to Verstappen remain a growing concern.
Having qualified four tenths off his team-mate in the dry in Hungary, Perez was 0.9s adrift of Verstappen in both Friday qualifying and the sprint shootout at Spa.
He hit a new low at Zandvoort, where he will start six places lower than the Red Bull team leader having gone 1.3s slower in Q3.
The immediate pressure on Perez may have eased slightly, particularly following Daniel Ricciardo’s untimely hand injury on Friday, but this is a driver hardly out of the woods yet.