Verstappen returns to Zandvoort as favourite – but Ferrari and Mercedes are lurking in the wings
Zandvoort has only been back on the Formula 1 calendar one year and already it has become a firm favourite.
Its idyllic beachside location and party vibe creates a boisterous atmosphere, the undulating, fast and narrow circuit is a great test of skill and it’s a trailblazer, too, with around 80% of fans making their way to track sustainably – walking, cycling or on public transport.
Even on Wednesday, four days before race day, Zandvoort was buzzing for the arrival of their hero Max Verstappen, who will this weekend compete on home soil as world champion for the first time in his career.
The beachside bars were packed, with most fans dressed head to toe in orange. Inside the circuit on Thursday media day, you could see fans peering through fences, on tip toes stood on one of the many sand dunes which surround the 4km circuit, and lining the main gate hoping to catch a glimpse of their heroes.
Zandvoort erupted when Verstappen clinched victory here last year, on F1’s return to the historic circuit for the first time in more than 30 years – the party rolling through the night and still ongoing when we headed to the airport early on Monday morning.
There is a good chance similar celebrations will take place given the run of form that Verstappen is on right now. He arrives at Zandvoort after the most dominant Grand Prix win of his career, having followed up his win from 10th in Hungary with a 14th-to-victory at Spa.
Verstappen is a completely different driver to the one who delivered the win his loyal orange army craved this time last year at Zandvoort.
Winning the world title has activated another level in his skill set. The pressure is off. He’s attacking each weekend with the same amount of focus – but he’s loving it more.
Crucially, in the heat of battle, he has pulled back the all-attack approach by half a percent and is more measured – and that is making him a more potent prospect.
The result is a run of nine wins in 14 races (he won 10 races in total last year) and a 93-point lead in the drivers’ championship. That kind of form means it’s a case of how soon – rather than if – he will defend his title.
However, there is a good chance that Verstappen and his Red Bull team will face a sterner test this weekend at Zandvoort, so different is the track to Spa where they were utterly dominant.
At almost half the length, Zandvoort is littered with banked corners and only one real straight – which means it’s hectic for drivers. There’s no recovery time. The circuit is narrow, too, with gravel traps rather than asphalt run-offs to enhance the challenge.
And while overtaking is possible – most likely into the banked Turn 1 – qualifying is crucial around here. And that has been Ferrari’s strength this year. The red cars have started P1 nine times in 14 attempts this season – Charles Leclerc on seven, Carlos Sainz on two – and tend to have the slightest of edges over Red Bull across one lap.
With that in mind, there is some optimism at Ferrari that they will be a greater threat than at Spa – however they and Red Bull will need to be mindful of Mercedes lurking.
The Silver Arrows returned to form on the tight and twisty Hungaroring, George Russell taking his first career pole and the team’s first of the season. “We hope that it’s better this weekend,” said Hamilton.
“This track, if you try to compare it to another track it’s more similar to somewhere like Budapest, so the operating window hopefully will be better for us.
“Obviously in Spa you’ve got the long, long straights in the first and last section, then you’ve got very low-speed corners and very high-speed corners, and we have quite a narrow working window with this car currently, aerodynamically. I’m hoping this weekend that this track is a little bit more suited to it. Our race pace continues to be our strength.”
Even if Verstappen is favourite for this weekend – which will delight the thousands of fans who will chant his name every time he passes them in the grandstands – it shouldn’t be as easy as it was at Spa.