After the very lovely interlude that was the summer break, this weekend’s Dutch Grand Prix kicks off a manic second half of the F1 season.
Aside from a few hotspots of action in the first half of the season, the opening 12 races took place at a relatively reasonable pace – helped considerably by cancellations in China and Emilia Romagna to introduce some further weekends off.
But the second half of the year is set to be a relentless barrage of action, with the remaining 10 races being held over just 14 weeks – offering little chance for rest and respite for anyone working in the sport.
Dutch Grand Prix a chance to party for Max Verstappen’s ‘Orange Army’
With the Belgian Grand Prix shifted forward to be held prior to the shutdown rather than its more traditional slot of kicking off the season’s second half, it’s Max Verstappen who leaves one home for another as Zandvoort plays host to the Dutch Grand Prix and gives the home fans another chance to celebrate their man’s ongoing dominance of the sport.
It’s a circuit that boasts a long and storied history in Formula 1, dating way back to its first championship races in the early 1950s and becoming a permanent fixture from 1958 onward until it held its final race of the 20th century in 1985. Due to problems with noise pollution and a lack of space leading to an inability to upgrade the facilities, the track went through two decades of slow evolution and layout tweaks – but would likely have remained nothing more than a national treasure had it not been for the Verstappen factor.
In 2018 and 2019, the necessary moves were made to bring Formula 1 back to the Netherlands and, with thorough modernisation and alterations being made to the circuit to add in some banking, Zandvoort returned to the calendar in 2021 – over 35 years after its last race.
In the two races held since, it’s been Verstappen who has dominated both events, much to the joy of the ‘Orange Army’, whose love of the colour (and coloured flares that lead to orange smoke covering the track) have given Zandvoort an instantly recognisable aesthetic in a remarkably short amount of time.
There’s little reason to doubt that the Dutch driver can add to his incredible tally of 2023 victories this weekend, having proven over the past two years that he is simply not fazed by the additional pressure of having to perform at his best in front of a baying and expectant crowd.
So what are the potential stumbling blocks for the home hero this weekend? Aside from the obvious, such as unreliability or Red Bull making a rare error, it’s qualifying where Verstappen hasn’t been utterly dominant this year. While Zandvoort is a flowing sinew through the dunes, the fast, banked, Arie Luyendijkbocht leading onto the main straight offers a strong overtaking opportunity.
Even if Verstappen fails to get pole position, his patient approach to racing in 2023 – safe in the knowledge of his car’s pace – means it’s difficult to envisage anything but him putting on a show to slice his way back into the lead.
However, spare a thought for compatriot Nyck de Vries. The Dutch driver, having secured an F1 seat this year, would have been salivating all year about being able to return home to also enjoy his home crowd’s support. Dropped from his seat with just two races to go before Zandvoort, De Vries now has to endure the disappointment of reverting to being a spectator.
Are McLaren heading the chasing pack?
The fascinating prospect for this weekend is keeping an eye on McLaren to see whether they can pick back up where they were in Hungary. Having been fully open about the fact their low-drag weakness would compromise them in a dry race at Spa (which is exactly what they got), Zandvoort is the Woking-based team’s best opportunity to get one over on Red Bull until Singapore – Monza is likely to be a tough one given its ultra low-drag requirement.
Having been Red Bull’s closest challengers at Silverstone and the Hungaroring, Zandvoort should play more to the strengths of the MCL60 to give Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri another chance to impress and be a thorn in the side for Red Bull.
The most interesting factor in the second half of the season is the prospect that, of the chasing teams, does fifth-place McLaren now have the second-quickest car in F1? With 10 races to go, 88 points behind fourth place, and 144 behind Mercedes, just how far can McLaren get between now and Abu Dhabi?
What of Mercedes, Ferrari, and Aston Martin? The ebb and flow of each team’s fortunes means it’s anyone’s guess as to who might get things right this weekend. Aston Martin’s development path has had them teetering backward through the middle part of the season, with team boss Mike Krack explaining in Belgium that the initial data analysed from responding to the characteristics changes from their upgrades has been positive.
“We have really done 24/7 analysis, trying to understand and also trying to do something about it,” he said.
“If you want to play your role in the championship, you have to be strong everywhere, you cannot say ‘We just go for that track or that track’.
“Zandvoort and Monza are very different, then we have Singapore and Japan also very different. So you need to perform well on all four of the next four and you need to have a package ready that allows you to go more on the low-drag, to high efficiency, to high downforce or maximum downforce, the car has to behave well everywhere. These are the basics and then you do your wings to adjust to the certain tracks.”
Ferrari’s Fred Vasseur has been reluctant to get carried away by his team’s much-improved showing in Belgium, saying that the pack is too tight to offer predictions.
“I will stay very calm because we had the same meeting one week ago [in Hungary], and we were at the end of the world,” he said. “McLaren was flying and we were stupid, and so that from one week to the other, McLaren is at the back today and we are at the front.
“That means that we have to stay calm, to take it easy race after race, that we know that the pack is so tight that, for one or two-tenths, you can move from P2 to P11.”
What are the other storylines to watch out for at the Dutch Grand Prix?
Aside from the battle at the front, there’s also the intrigue of keeping an eye on the AlphaTauri battle as the returning Daniel Ricciardo aims to impress his Red Bull bosses to be in with a shout of a Red Bull seat when one becomes available.
Of course, while the veteran Australian is out to crush new teammate Yuki Tsunoda, the Japanese driver is no pushover and, having had the dynamic of being the one in control at AlphaTauri all year, now has to dig deep to ensure his own career isn’t ended by the arrival of Ricciardo.
What, too, of Alpine? The Enstone team have had a largely anonymous year, aside from a few bright spots, and Spa-Francorchamps was full of distractions as they dropped Otmar Szafnauer in favour of the interim Bruno Famin. Will fortunes improve? It’s hard to say why they would, but as long as Renault are happy…
Separately to what’s going on on track, spare a thought this weekend for the late Roger Williamson. The British driver was killed in a horrifyingly tragic accident at Zandvoort in the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, at a part of the track which has since been re-developed into a golf course.
The actual anniversary took place on July 29th, but this weekend marks 50 years since the events that claimed his life, and made a hero (however unwanted) of David Purley.