With its sight, sound and spectacle, the Dutch Grand Prix is not one for the faint-hearted. The noise levels alone generated by the enthusiastic crowd bouncing along to the relentless pounding of techno music is almost debilitating. Yet that was nothing compared to the celebratory roar that echoed across the dunes of Zandvoort when Max Verstappen claimed pole. After a nail-biting finale this was an exhalation as much of relief as of ecstasy.
With their orange capes billowing in the winds at this circuit perched on the edge of the North Sea these fans had come to party and pay homage to the world champion at his first home meeting since he took the title. One went too far when a flare was thrown on to the track but for the majority the excitement and expectation was palpable. Yet they had surely not expected such an almighty tussle for the top spot.
Red Bull’s Verstappen held the edge but by the tiniest of margins and only after being pushed to the limit by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. The Dutchman had to pull out everything and deliver a marvellous lap, especially after being off the pace in practice on Friday.
“Unbelievable, especially after yesterday we had a difficult day,” he said. “The whole team turned it around and today we had a quick car again. It was very close but the pole lap was insane.”
On his first run in Q3 Verstappen pushed to the limit, on the very edge through the banking of Hugenholtz. He set a time of 1min 10.515sec but Leclerc followed him and found even more. Especially strong in the opening third, he took the lead by six-hundredths of a second.
It was an immense lap to answer Verstappen’s effort but with the track still evolving the final runs were crucial and impossibly tense. The circuit is just 2.6 miles long, narrow and unforgiving. The corners come with relentless repetition, allowing no margin for error, and at the sharp end there was almost nothing in it.
Leclerc led the leaders out, bettering his first sector time. Yet Verstappen behind him went faster with a hugely impressive middle sector and by the tiniest margin enjoyed the best of the run to the line, taking pole by two-hundredths with a time of 1:10.342, in a gripping finish.
Behind them Carlos Sainz was third but there was disappointment for Mercedes drivers, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell who were fourth and sixth. Both had been on quick laps on their final runs with the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, stating that Hamilton had been a tenth up on Verstappen’s time, when his Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez lost it in the final corner forcing both to back off.
Hamilton believes a podium place is still possible. “The car was strong today and I felt I could go quicker,” he said. “I hope that that translates to tomorrow. I’ll definitely be pushing as hard as I can for a podium.”
The excitable atmosphere was clearly too much for some. Dutch fans have been setting off orange flares in increasing volume since coming to meetings en masse with Verstappen as champion. One flare landed on the track early in Q2, delaying the session. Signs on entry to the circuit emphasise that flares are banned but were clearly ignored. The offender was removed by security and Verstappen condemned the behaviour. “To throw it on the track is just stupid,” he said, “It’s not good for anyone and for us it’s dangerous.”
The Dutchman holds a commanding position in the championship race. Having taken nine wins he has a 93-point lead over Pérez and is 98 clear of Leclerc. With another decent haul of points he could potentially close out his second title as soon as Singapore or Japan. With overtaking very tricky here and starting from the front he is in a strong position to move one step closer to doing so.
Lando Norris was seventh for McLaren, Mick Schumacher eighth for Haas, Yuki Tsunoda ninth for AlphaTauri and Lance Stroll 10th for Aston Martin.
Pierre Gasly was 11th for AlphaTauri, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso 12th and 13th for Alpine, Guanyu Zhou 14th for Alfa Romeo and Alex Albon 15th for Williams.
Valtteri Bottas was in 16th for Alfa Romeo, Kevin Magnussen in 17th for Haas and Daniel Ricciardo in 18th for McLaren. Sebastian Vettel was in 19th for Aston Martin and Nicholas Latifi in 20th for Williams.