A game of strategy and chance
Formula 1 races must be won or lost through a combination of three variables: driver skill, car (machinery) performance and team strategy. When a team performs each of these elements superiorly, a victory should be the result. Unfortunately, there is a fourth factor that comes into play, which is beyond anyone’s control: luck.
For the first half of the Dutch Grand Prix, team strategies dictated the course of the race as the top three teams – Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes – all started well from P1 to P6. But Mercedes took an alternative approach starting with the medium tyres. This implied the possibility of a one-stop strategy, whereas others on soft tires would probably have to go for a two-stop strategy given the rates of tire degradation.
The first big upset came on lap 15 (of 72), when Ferrari missed Carlos Sainz’s pit stop. The crew just wasn’t ready. He remained motionless for 12.7 seconds. And as if that weren’t enough, Perez had to ride a Ferrari tire gun on the way out of his pit. This effectively put Sainz off the podium, and it was down to the remaining five riders. Although, again, Perez was out of rhythm all weekend, so there were only four left: Verstappen, Leclerc, Hamilton and Russell.
Leclerc switched to medium tires on lap 18. Verstappen followed on lap 19. Which put Hamilton and Russell first and second respectively. Max would eventually pass Russell on cooler tyres, then every Mercedes switched to hard tires on laps 30 and 32. At this point in the race, it looked like Mercedes had the superior strategy. Verstappen is expected to stop again, and both Mercedes had closed the gap enough to put him behind them by around seven seconds after that pit stop. Max would then have to chase and pass both Mercedes for the win. It looked like it would be a Verstappen-Hamilton battle for first place and a Leclerc-Russell battle for third. And then luck came into play…twice.
First, Yuki Tsunoda stopped on the track, causing a yellow flag, then returned to the pits for a tire change (and a seat belt adjustment?) to exit the pits and immediately stop, this which caused a virtual safety car (VSC). This allowed Verstappen to get a cheap pitstop at a time when he critically needed one. I’m not prone to conspiracy theories, but AlphaTauri is The Red Bull junior team, and this timing was ideal for them.
With 14 laps to go, the Alfa Romeo powertrain of Valtteri Bottas called, he leaves on the pit straight, triggering a full safety car. Of course, this makes the pit stop as cheap as possible and leads to a rolling restart. Hamilton and Russell both led Verstappen at this point, and the question was whether Max could pass both cars on the remaining laps for the win. Red Bull called Max for soft tyres, which would give him a huge pace advantage on the restart. Russell then made his own pit call for the soft tires, which dropped him behind Max. In the end, it turned out to be the right choice for Russell, personally, and perhaps not the optimal choice for the team. This is one of the unique aspects of individual versus team play in Formula 1. In the end, however, Leclerc would likely have passed both Mercedes, leaving Hamilton and Russell third and fourth respectively instead of second-placed Russell and of Hamilton’s fourth. In hindsight, Hamilton should also have opted for soft tires – a tricky double stack – which would have likely put both Mercedes drivers on the podium.
My feeling is that something needs to be done to mitigate the luck factor in F1. Team strategy is the most dynamic aspect of any race. This is the variable that varies the most on a given Sunday. When unforeseen factors randomly favor one team over another, there should be methods in place to rebalance the rules of the game. If pit stops under safety cars and VSCs came with time penalties , it would give pilots and strategists a lot more thought to take that call. Whereas currently, these judgments are obvious.
While F1 fans voted Verstappen their driver of the day, I would say George Russell is more deserving. He started from P6 and finished P2. He drove a faultless race and independently made a strategic call to switch to soft tires during the safety car – showing plenty of maturity and racing savvy – which allowed him to pass his team-mate, the sevenfold world champion Lewis Hamilton. He now finds himself fourth in the drivers’ standings with a mere 13-point deficit on Leclerc and Perez, who are level on second and third. “Mr. Consistency” continues his record of finishing in the top five in every race he has completed in 2022.
Meanwhile, Mercedes has further narrowed the gap to Ferrari to just 30 points in the constructors’ standings. However, the high-speed nature of Monza next weekend won’t favor the Mercs unless they come with upgrades that deliver more straight-line speed. And despite Ferrari’s challenges this season, there’s no better race to get it right, because Scuderia’s Monza win ahead of the Tifosi is what every F1 fan (diehard supporters notwithstanding) wants. see.
At the end of the line: Mercedes had their first win of 2022 in sight, but it was undone by bad luck beyond their control. This is an encouraging development for the rest of the season. Nonetheless, the 2022 Dutch Grand Prix was thrilling, unpredictable and dramatic from start to finish, and that’s how F1 racing should be.