Formula 1's long-awaited return to the Netherlands has finally come, with the sport heading back to Zandvoort after 35 years away.
Originally scheduled to return in 2020, the Netherlands was forced to wait another year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the wait may result in an even better result for the partisan crowd. While 2020 saw Mercedes dominate the majority of the season, 2021 sees Max Verstappen come home as a Grand Prix driver, a championship protagonist and, arguably, as the favourite for victory.
Zandvoort was once a mainstay on the Formula 1 calendar, but fell out of favour in the mid-1980s. There's been extensive demolition and re-construction over the years since then, with Zandvoort lucky to survive past the late 80s due to political efforts to reclaim the land for property development on the coast.
But survive it has, and Zandvoort has been extensively updated for Formula 1's return. It's been thoroughly modernised, with state-of-the-art safety barriers and construction methods used for the newly banked Hugenholtz and Arie Luyenduk corners.
But the circuit remains tight, twisty, narrow, and very fast. Overtaking will be exceptionally difficult at a track with just two short DRS zones and a lot of corners, meaning qualifying will be almost as important as it is at the likes of the Hungaroring and Monte Carlo.
Zandvoort essential for Red Bull to get back on track after recent troubles
While the Belgian GP 'result' fell in Red Bull and Verstappen's favour, this was only due to a qualifying session held in tricky wet conditions where Verstappen was able to make the difference. There's simply no way of telling how a Grand Prix would have played out, given the setup decisions that Mercedes and Red Bull had chosen, which suggested two polar opposite approaches to Spa-Francorchamps.
It's slightly bizarre that Verstappen hasn't actually completed a representative race lap since his win at the second Austrian race, two months ago. Knocked out on the first lap at Silverstone, his Hungarian race was a struggle to finish due to extensive damage in a blameless accident, and there wasn't a single lap of racing in Belgium.
It's a curious lull in on track fighting between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, and it's in Verstappen's backyard that the battle is likely to pick back up again.
Make no mistake about it, Hamilton is going to face quite a bit of hostility from the crowds this weekend. It's nothing he hasn't experienced before, given his visits to Spain in the wake of his battles with Fernando Alonso, as well as visiting Germany during the Sebastian Vettel rivalry days. But the dirty mud-slinging between Mercedes and Red Bull off track, coupled with the emotional heat of Silverstone still fresh in the mind, means that Hamilton, no matter how prepared he thinks he is, is likely to be shocked by the extent of the lack of welcome he will encounter.
Hamilton is immensely strong mentally, and is sure to be able to compartmentalise the situation, aware that he is a pantomime villain for a crowd exuberantly celebrating the return of their hero and racing on home soil. Verstappen, by contrast, has to cope with the huge weight of expectation and the distraction of having an adoring crowd desperate to see him victorious.
It's a huge amount of pressure for Verstappen to cope with, even compared to the 'home' races he's done before in Belgium and at Red Bull's home races in Austria. While Verstappen has coped tremendously well with that expectation in the past, this is a much more personal weight on his shoulders as he, not Red Bull, represents the pride of the Netherlands.
Despite all his recent travails, Verstappen is just three points behind Hamilton in the Drivers' Championship after being given a reasonably easy five-point advantage in Belgium. But the momentum of the championship needs to return to Red Bull if they want to bring this year's trophies home, and that starts this weekend.
Verstappen dominated in Monaco, and will be aiming to replicate that performance this weekend by going for pole position. At a circuit where track position is key, starting at the front will help Verstappen's quest for home glory start on the right foot.
Are Mercedes on par with, or even ahead of, Red Bull?
The strange situations with recent races means it's almost impossible to gauge just how Mercedes and Red Bull actually compare, given we've only had single lap pace to use as a basis.
The recent rumours about Mercedes utilising an intercooler trick on their power unit to help with initial acceleration from slow corners are likely to pick up steam this weekend, if the W12 is particularly fast out of the reasonably tight Turns 1, 4, 10 and 12. After Hamilton took emphatic pole positions at Silverstone and Hungary, Verstappen struck back at Spa in the changeable conditions, and this qualifying tete-a-tete is sure to continue at Zandvoort, with greater focus than perhaps at Spa.
While Red Bull unquestionably went through a period of domination with Verstappen, the balance of power now appears far more level in recent races, and the Dutch Grand Prix may go a long way towards indicating whether Mercedes have done enough to close the gap to Red Bull. The team are citing Zandvoort as being a track that, on paper, should suit the W12, meaning a fascinating battle lies in store.
Might any driver changes be announced this weekend?
There's a huge amount of driver market turmoil going on in the background, waiting to emerge as teams frantically try to get their driver line-ups confirmed for 2022.
As reported by RacingNews365.com earlier this week, George Russell looks set for a Mercedes seat alongside Hamilton, while Valtteri Bottas is lined up for Alfa Romeo alongside Formula E World Champion, Dutch driver Nyck de Vries. Williams, then, are set to bring Red Bull refugee Alex Albon into the fold to replace Russell.
But none of these announcements are likely to be made this weekend. The dominos look set to start falling at Monza, where Kimi Raikkonen is rumoured to be announcing his retirement. This will lead Alfa Romeo to announce their line-up and, once Bottas' future is confirmed, Mercedes are likely to follow suit by confirming Russell. This, then, paves the way for Williams to confirm their signing.
Separately to that, AlphaTauri, another Italian team, look set to re-confirm Yuki Tsunoda alongside Pierre Gasly, who is already confirmed for next year.
But given how strong these rumours are, expect plenty of questioning aimed at poker-faced drivers throughout the Dutch Grand Prix weekend.
One way to watch the Dutch Grand Prix in certain countries is through F1 TV, F1's own digital streaming platform that helps you get inside the pit lane while accessing real-time statistics and timing, along with historical content.
Users can live stream every track session for every one of the Grands Prix, along with access to all the onboard cameras and team radios for your favourite drivers.
In addition to Formula 1 content, you can also get the F2, F3, and Porsche Supercup action as well. Find out more here.
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