RACE DEBRIEF

    As I pen this piece, with the afternoon turning to evening, the sun finally broke through persistent cloud to bath the mighty beachside Zandvoort in light. Dance music is being blasted out on the PA, with thousands of fans – bedecked head to toe in orange of course – crowding in the enormous and towering main grandstands overlooking the pit lane and cheering each time they see a famous F1 face – including Kimi Raikkonen, who will be competing in his first and last Dutch Grand Prix, after announcing he’ll retire at the end of the year.

    There wasn’t even any track action and yet they are here, craning their necks to get a view of the Red Bull garage – or better still, their hero Max Verstappen. There are vibes of Lewis Hamilton-mania at Silverstone. The only difference is that while Silverstone rocks with a full house, there are big pockets of fans for other drivers. Here, there are only eyes for one man.

    Over the course of the weekend, 65,000 fans per day will stroll through the gates – maxing out at two-thirds capacity, which quadruples Zandvoort’s population. That means it is a very tight squeeze. The sandy beach is heaving. The surrounding hotels and holiday parks are rammed. And the town is bustling with more fans arriving without tickets, just soaking up the atmosphere.

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    The Dutch have a grand Prix for the first time since 1985 - and their man is one of the favourites for the win

    Why so much fanfare? Well Verstappen is the F1 messiah the Netherlands have long craved. Fourteen drivers, including his father Jos, have taken the start lights of a Formula 1 Grand Prix. But not one of them scored a pole position. Nor did they achieve a win.

    Not only did Verstappen take both of those records, the latter while he was still a teenager, but he has developed into a superstar set to be a fixture at the front of the grid for at least another decade – maybe even two – and in turn should push the Netherlands up on the F1 and sporting map.

    And then there is the pride in their circuit Zandvoort. Many felt it was too small to accommodate the travelling Formula 1 pack and too narrow to race on. But with some shrewd planning – allocating parking spots for F1 personnel all over the town, from the beachfront to hotel car parks – and some heavy investment to modify the track, with the new asphalt and revised corners, they have got their wish. Admittedly it’s a year late, thanks to Covid, but what’s a year when they have previously waited 35 since the last one, when Niki Lauda took his final victory in F1 in 1985?

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    As Verstappen headed out for his track walk on Thursday morning, his every step was snapped by the 20-strong gaggle of photographers. He was stopped by marshals excited to see him up close and keen for a selfie. And as he moved out onto track, there were chants from the grandstands that followed him around this 4.3km undulating and old school racing circuit.

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    Verstappen looks set to renew his rivalry with Hamilton - the latter knows he might get a less than warm reception from the crowd

    They are desperate for Verstappen to succeed and get his title challenge back on track – because the momentum that he had built earlier this year had gone missing and resulted in Hamilton reclaiming the championship lead. We all know what happened at Silverstone (he collided with Hamilton if you didn’t) and he was a victim of a multi-car crash at the next race in Hungary.

    And then there was the rain-hit Spa weekend where wet weather prevented any meaningful running on race day. Three races then, where Verstappen’s charge has stalled. His home race offers a chance to readdress the balance – and with the bonus of unwavering fan support.

    “What I hope from the whole weekend is that everyone is having a good time and they enjoy seeing the cars on the track,” said Verstappen. “Seeing us battle it out there for the best possible result. It’s going to be great to see [a huge crowd]. Unfortunately, it’s not even at full capacity, it’s not allowed, but nevertheless, it looks very impressive.”

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    When I walked the circuit, there were three corners that catch your attention and dominated the conversation – Turns 1, 3 and 14. And that’s because all of them are banked. Turn 3 in particular is quite something. Chatting to Yuki Tsunoda, he said he’d never seen anything like it. The contour angle is 18 degrees, double – yes double – that of the banking at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Unless you see it, it’s difficult to believe just how steep it is. It takes less than eight seconds for a can of fizzy drink to cover 15m from the top of the banking to the bottom.

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    Verstappen on his track walk at Zandvoort

    “I have to say everyone is very interested in the banked corners,” said Verstappen. “When you do the track walk it does look very special as you don’t really see that a lot on other tracks. It definitely adds something to it. The last corner will be easy flat but Turn 3, it definitely gives you a few more opportunities to what lines you can take.” He added: “It’s a bit more old school, like Suzuka. When you make a mistake you can get punished a bit more even though they changed a few bits with a bit more runoff.”

    While some drivers, like Lando Norris, have experience of racing at Zandvoort in junior categories, none of them have raced in anger on the current configuration, with the three new banked turns. As a result, most have spent hours in the simulator to start building up a data bank.

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    But not Verstappen. He hasn’t done a single lap on it. And that means “it’s a bit of a question mark” he said. But he added: “But I think we have enough time to work on the car. The weather is going to be quite consistent so that helps.”

    Like his rivals, Verstappen wouldn’t be drawn on how he felt his respective team would perform at Zandvoort, given it’s such an unknown. And thus it is anticipated that those who have a clean Friday, get through their programmes and are able to find the right direction quickly will have the edge.

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    Verstappen's orange army have already been out in force this season - but are expected to be even more vocal here

    “It’s very difficult because we have no information from previous years,” said Verstappen. “It’s a bit of guessing what to do to start the weekend but after FP1 you have a bit more of a clearer picture of what direction you want to go into in terms of setup work and then it will evolve. It can be really good, it can be not as good but I think so far, for this whole year, we have been competitive, sometimes fighting for the win, sometimes a podium and let’s hope we can do something similar here.”

    Verstappen is trying to play his chances down, perhaps as a mechanism to cope with the expectation of a nation. But there is no doubt he wants to win, primarily to get his title challenge back on track. And frankly, that’s all his loyal supporters want. Because this isn’t just the Dutch Grand Prix. It’s also the Max Verstappen show.

    WATCH: Ride onboard with the Safety Car for a full lap of the remodelled Zandvoort track