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Dutch Grand Prix: Will Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen clash again?

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Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton start alongside each other on the front row on Sunday at a home race for one of them for the first time since the British Grand Prix.

Back at Silverstone in July, it ended in controversy. After a dramatic half-lap of intense racing, the two collided at Copse corner. Verstappen retired and was taken to hospital; Hamilton went on to win despite being given a 10-second penalty after being adjudged responsible for the incident.

The atmosphere at Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix this weekend is possibly even more intense than it was at Silverstone. In Britain, the capacity crowd was cheering for Hamilton; this weekend it is Verstappen’s turn, serenaded throughout by 80,000 mostly orange-clad, fervent fans and their orange flares.

Overtaking is expected to be difficult on Sunday, so track position will be key. Will it happen again?

Verstappen said: “I guess time will tell. As drivers you always try to do the best start you can and then see what happens.”

“There is not much more to add,” Hamilton said.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said: “The two protagonists will start side by side more often this season and I don’t think we should assume it will always end up in an incident.

“They are both among the best ones and they know that every win counts. They will do it fair and square but hard.”

A classic battle on a classic track

Both men were positively buzzing after their latest showdown as Verstappen edged out Hamilton for pole position by just 0.038 seconds.

Being beaten is not something Hamilton takes easily, but even he was happy on Saturday afternoon – partly because he had got so close after a difficult weekend, but also just from the sheer thrill of driving on this classic track that last graced the F1 calendar back in 1985.

“What a track,” Hamilton said. “It is incredible driving this track with the banked corners, and today was one of the sessions I enjoyed most. So close at the end.”

Verstappen has looked imperious all weekend, and this was his sixth pole position in seven races, a position that underlines Red Bull’s position as favourites for this championship, even though Hamilton leads it by three points before Sunday’s race.

“People think you have more pressure at a home grand prix but it is very enjoyable,” Verstappen said. “In F1, you always have to deliver, so from that side it doesn’t really change. And when you cross the line and see people having the time of their lives in the grandstand, it is just amazing to see.”

The Dutchman explained his serene progress like this: “It is a nice flowing track, old school, a bit of a Suzuka feeling. Suzuka sector one is incredible – it is difficult to find something like it. But this is really challenging and I really enjoy tracks like this.”

Zandvoort was designed by the same man as the home of the Japanese Grand Prix, the legendary John Hugenholtz, and it was indeed striking how great were the similarities in look and feel between the two tracks, with their fast corners, narrowness and limited run-off areas.

“I like the old-school circuits way better,” Hamilton said. “It would go along with the other original circuits like Suzuka, Silverstone and Spa. These are the ‘OG’ circuits. This has been phenomenal to drive.”

Why were Red Bull on top?

Digging into the detail of where Verstappen had the advantage over Hamilton, the main area was Turn Three.

This corner has been extensively modified ahead of F1’s return to Zandvoort. Known as Hugenholtz, after the track’s designer, Turn Three was always banked, but the gradient has been steepened considerably, to open up different lines, and in an attempt to make the track safer.

It has created a corner unlike anything else in F1, where the cars run high and wide right around the outside, close to the barrier, for the optimum line. And the Mercedes was struggling there.

“They are a lot quicker,” Hamilton said. “I was even down 0.18secs on that (final) lap, so close to 0.2secs we’re losing in that area. It’s difficult to say exactly what it is but there is some characteristic of our car that doesn’t like that corner.”

Hamilton felt that the engine problem that cost him all but one flying lap in second practice on Friday had also hindered him.

“(Not) having time in the car to chip away at it and try different lines,” the seven-time champion said. “There was a lot of time lost yesterday and I didn’t get the practice in getting the car to where it needed to be.

“It was great we were able to get that close because they had pulled quite far ahead at one point pace-wise. But with another session we would go quicker and we have more time to find.”

But so did Verstappen. He had a double upshift out of Turn Three on his fastest lap – a small error caused by the bumps – which cost him 0.15secs, and his DRS overtaking aid did not open on the run to the line.

Verstappen, then, starts as favourite for a race in which overtaking will be tough and mistakes will be punished. At least one safety-car period seems likely – there have been red flags in all sessions so far.

“It will be tough,” Hamilton said. “Max and his team were quicker than us on the long runs (in Friday practice). It is not a track you can overtake on, so it is going to be strategy tomorrow and how you utilise the tyres.”

The fight continues off track

The battle between Mercedes and Red Bull this year is being fought on many fronts, not just between Hamilton and Verstappen in their respective cars on the track.

Each team have been doing their best behind the scenes to destabilise their rivals, and eke out every advantage they can, and now another front has emerged – the driver market.

Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen’s impending retirement and the expected move of George Russell from Williams to join Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes have opened up seats at those two teams, and both Mercedes and Red Bull have skin in the game.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said on Friday that he was “working hard” to get a seat for their reserve driver Alexander Albon, who was dropped from Red Bull last year, and that both Williams and Alfa had expressed in interest.

But Dutchman Nyck de Vries, the recently crowned Formula E world champion for Mercedes, is also in the frame.

Potentially complicating the matter is that Williams use Mercedes engines. Next year, Red Bull officially become an engine manufacturer, as they take over the Honda engines following the Japanese company’s withdrawal from F1, even if for next year at least a large part of the work will still be done by Honda.

For Mercedes, this is a concern. They would want to ensure no intellectual property or knowledge is taken back to Red Bull.

“Albon is a driver who deserves his seat in F1,” Wolff said, “but it’s tricky to have a 100% Red Bull driver with a Mercedes power-unit. So, happy to work with him as long as they let him free from his Red Bull contract.”

Horner said that Albon’s “preference would be Williams” but that “he’s had about four phone calls telling him not to go there from the team next door (Mercedes). I told him to ignore them.” He added: “I really hope that Mercedes don’t block his opportunity at Williams. That’ll be a great, great shame.”

Wolff rejected Horner’s interpretation of events, saying he would “never block someone like Alex Albon”, and he said the phone calls were between the driver and Mercedes’ head of strategy James Vowles, “just exploring the opportunities for Alex in an amicable way between Alex and the group”.

Wolff added: “We need to look at the open spaces at Alfa and at Williams and try to find a solution (for both Albon and De Vries).”

Horner said: “Our priority is to see (Albon) racing next year. If we can’t do that, then he’ll still be with us in a test and reserve role, because we rate him extremely highly.”

Now, you may well ask at this point why, if Red Bull rate Albon so highly, they a) dropped him in the first place; and b) can’t find a seat for him given they have four cars on the grid.

Mercedes, indeed, are wondering the same thing.

The answer is that Red Bull don’t want Albon back in the main team, at least not yet; indeed they have already confirmed Sergio Perez as team-mate Verstappen.

As for second team Alpha Tauri, the conclusion is assumed to be that Yuki Tsunoda – who is backed by Honda – will stay on alongside Pierre Gasly despite both an unconvincing debut season by the Japanese and saying himself on Thursday that his chances were only “50-50”.

By Andrew Benson Chief F1 writer

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