As the Ferrari challenge faded at Zandvoort, Mercedes emerged as a surprise threat to Max Verstappen’s relentless domination of every race at the moment. Lewis Hamilton’s victory bid was born on strategy, though, rather than absolute peak pace. There were clearly points where Hamilton in the W13 looked a match for Verstappen in the RB18. But it was dependent on stint lengths and tyre management. When the circumstances of the grand prix went against him, he never looked likely to beat Verstappen in a straight fight.
And so Verstappen won. Again.
The fact Mercedes, Hamilton and George Russell have jumped ahead of Ferrari on race pace is a help. Mercedes continues to be (at best) just behind Red Bull on Saturdays and that means they fight from a slightly lower base. Were either Mercedes to start from pole at Zandvoort the race could have played out very differently. There will surely be tracks where the Ferrari is more effective but three races in a row with a limp Sunday challenge is a concern at Maranello. They are scratching their heads and they have hatched their theories but they are lacking concrete answers. And if Ferrari doesn’t know, then we are left guessing as well.
Is the car just a bit too slow? Has an update harmed how they use their tyres? Or, despite the public protestations to the contrary, has something on the car changed to suit the FIA’s porpoising technical directive. The upshot is that a trend’s developing: Red Bull or Ferrari will qualify fastest; Mercedes will either be nipping at their heels or struggling to even be third-best on Saturdays; the Red Bull will ease clear of the Ferrari in the race and the Mercedes might even be able to threaten Ferrari. Exactly how those specific factors play out is most circuit dependent. Heading into the Italian Grand Prix, though, there is no doubt that Verstappen is the overwhelming favourite. And F1 is at risk of suffering a difficult weekend.
We need a saviour at Monza, but not from Verstappen. He deserves the success he is enjoying, for he is driving extremely well and the Red Bull is unquestionably F1 2022’s most adaptable car. It is strong on a range of circuit layouts and looks increasingly dependable in qualifying. What F1 needs saving from is a weekend of pointless controversy and underwhelming on-track spectacle. There is talk of penalty chaos at Monza, with multiple engine and gearbox changes resulting in as many penalties as we had at the Belgian Grand Prix – maybe even more.
That could mean a few things: drivers not participating in qualifying properly; various cars being out of position for the race; and some threats to Verstappen’s likely dominance being removed (Hamilton and Carlos Sainz are among those set to start from the back).It’s not going to be a good look for F1 if qualifying, as it was at Spa, gets reduced to effectively setting two grids: the first 13 or 14 places for the unpenalised drivers and the penalised drivers fighting over the last three or four rows. It’s pointlessly confusing and it devalues Saturday. Especially for the cars that are scrambling to get into Q3, miss the top 10 by a fraction – and find themselves starting alongside the 19th or 20th qualifier, because a bunch of penalties have promoted that driver six or seven places.
Sometimes grid penalties create for fun secondary storylines in a grand prix. It will be entertaining in a way to watch Hamilton and Sainz carve through the field. But it will be far less entertaining to see Verstappen gradually ease clear of Charles Leclerc, who gradually eases clear of Russell. Sergio Perez will be in there somewhere. But removing the fastest Mercedes driver (over the last few races at least) and one of the two Ferraris just eliminates a big percentage of the jeopardy Verstappen faces. Although, if the Red Bull is as dominant here as some people fear it could be, then maybe all this makes no difference