ZANDVOORT, Netherlands — Over a single lap, there are few circuits where Formula One cars look as impressive as they do at Zandvoort.
Even through the lens of a TV camera, which flattens undulations and saps speed by shortening distances, a qualifying lap at the Dutch Grand Prix looked every bit the roller-coaster ride it was.
The combination of banked corners and high-speed sweeping turns makes the track unique in F1 and, according to seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, puts it on a level with the sport’s most legendary venues.
“It’s a great track,” he said after qualifying second. “I like the old school circuits way better.
“This will go a long with all the other original circuits like Suzuka, Silverstone, Spa, they’re really the O.G. circuits. This one has been phenomenal to drive.”
Zandvoort’s lack of run off leaves no room for error — as both Williams drivers found out the hard way by crashing out of the second session of qualifying — but for those that hooked up a good lap, the rewards were huge.
“It’s old school,” Max Verstappen, who took pole position, said. “I mean, you never want to hit a barrier. It hurts, but it’s part of it.
“As long, of course, as safety is important on the outside. Today we saw that Nicolas [Latifi] had a big off but with those Tecpro barriers it’s well protected. It’s never nice to hit it, but it’s still very safe.”
The battle between Verstappen and Hamilton was worthy of the circuit it played out on and vice-a-versa, with home hero Verstappen beating his title rival to pole by just 0.038s.
It later emerged that Verstappen’s DRS flap in his rear wing did not fully open on the short run to the finish line, which would have cost him a small amount of straight-line speed, but costlier was a double up-shift from fourth gear to sixth as he exited Turn 3.
“For me the problem started earlier [than the DRS not opening], out of two and three,” he said. “It’s quite bumpy and I had a double shift.
“So I was two tenths [of a second] up on my lap and then I lost like one and a half tenths all the way to turn seven and then you also use more energy because you are a gear higher.
“So I don’t know, I need to check. I was not aware that my DRS was closed to the line.”
But to the 70,000 home fans it didn’t matter. In fact, the session was made all the more thrilling by how close Hamilton came in the final moments of the session, with their man set to start from pole position on the run down to Turn 1.
What’s more, it’s clear that Red Bull once again has the edge over Mercedes, which was haemorrhaging lap time through Turn 3.
“Max has been incredibly fast through the first sector and that’s been an area we’ve been really working hard at improving the car, the balance overnight and through final practice into qualifying, and just slowly chipping away at it,” Hamilton said. “It’s a circuit where you need to continually chip away and build that confidence.
“The lap, particularly the second and third sector, the third sector was on the edge, you should have seen the last corner, there wasn’t any road left so I was really really happy with it.
“I think it’s great we were able to get that close because they pulled quite far ahead at one point pace-wise but I still think if we had another session, again, we’d all go quicker and there’s more time to find.”
After Verstappen crashed out of contention at Hamilton’s home British Grand Prix following a collision between the two, there’s a temptation to think Verstappen may consider returning the favour if Hamilton gets alongside him at Zandvoort.
Turns 1 and 2 funnel the cars together before the banked bowl of Turn 3 offers drivers with the option of a high line or a low line — as well as an increased risk of colliding.
The question of crashing was asked of the top two drivers after qualifying, but at this stage of the championship battle they both know better than to engage in a war of words ahead of race day.
“I guess time will tell [what happens on the opening lap,” Verstappen said. “But I think as drivers you always try to do the best start you can to Turn 1 and then see what happens afterwards.
“I think like I said, everyone always tries to do their best right in the first lap to just try and gain a position or defend a position. Depends where you’re at.”
But even if a move isn’t possible on the first lap, Mercedes was bullish about the prospect of taking the fight to Verstappen later in the race.
It’s not clear if the fastest way to the flag will be with a single pit stop or with two, and, with Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas starting third while Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez starts from 16th, Mercedes can split its strategy in a way Red Bull cannot.
By pitting Bottas of Hamilton early for fresh tyres and putting him on a two-stop, Mercedes may be able to pose Red Bull with a choice of either following suit or losing track position at the front.
It’s a tactic Red Bull often used when it was trying to force errors from Mercedes in recent years, and one that will likely come in to play if Hamilton doesn’t beat Verstappen to Turn 1 at the start of the race.
“I think if we are able to have the same pace in the race, and it’s going to be about survival on the one-stop, Max needs to make a decision: is he going for a one-stop or is he going for a two-stop?” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. “I think we can play both strategies tomorrow, so you have two cars that can actually go totally different.
“Certainly, we’ll be pitting one, undercutting and massive pressure, leaving the other out and then finishing one and two,” he added with a smile.