George Russell crossed the line on Sunday to bring his W13 home in P2 at the Dutch Grand Prix. However, Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team feel that their two drivers would have been able to challenge Max Verstappen for the lead at Zandvoort in a gripping six-lap shootout, had it not been for the Virtual Safety Car.
Strategy is key in modern day Formula One more than ever and this was evident on Sunday at Zandvoort. Having started both drivers on the medium tyre compound (whilst those ahead had chosen softs), Sir Lewis Hamilton and George Russell managed their tyres well to extend the first stint and in doing so set up a one-stop strategy on the hard tyre which certainly put them in contention for their first victory of 2022. However, the plans all changed when a Virtual Safety Car on lap 47 saw a flurry of pitstops. This included Mercedes as they implemented an impressive double stack and put both drivers on fresh mediums. Unfortunately, for the eight-time Constructors’ Champions, further drama would soon follow.
A safety car, a few laps later, saw Max Verstappen relinquish track position from the lead and now Mercedes were running on track in 1’2. The Silver Arrows made the choice to keep Lewis Hamilton out on track to retain track position and hopefully fight for the win. Meanwhile, George Russell made the call to switch to softs thinking it would consolidate P3 when in fact his tyre was so superior to Hamilton in the closing laps that he claimed P2. The seven-time F1 Driver’s Champion could not even make the final step off the podium and had to settle for a frustrating P4.
With so much drama to analyse, it is easy to create a case of ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ but Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team boss Toto Wolff stated after Sunday’s Dutch Grand Prix that the team's predictions suggested a first victory of 2022 was possible due to the gap to Verstappen and the reduced degradation of the hard tyre – if not for the Virtual Safety Car.
"The simulation says that Max would have come out eight seconds behind us with 20 laps to go," Wolff told select media post-race which included Motorlat. "He would have probably pitted on the hard at that time and I think we would have had a fair shot at the win. The race planner said the win is on. Tight, but on." It certainly would have been tight, with Toto Wolff going on to explain the data and how “It would have said about six laps from the end. It was very close."
Sunday’s race winner Max Verstappen remarked that the timing of the VSC was "a bit unfortunate" due to the fact that he was lacking a little bit of pace on the hard tyre compared to the medium compound running Mercedes. Even so, the current F1 Drivers’ Champion was confident that the gap would have been large enough for victory as he claimed, "I think the gap was still big enough to manage it to the end, but they would have definitely gotten a lot closer than I think the 11-and-a-half seconds it was at the time."
Meanwhile, Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner told the media that the VSC was set to cause more damage to them.
"Max was conserving tyres, so he wasn't killing the tyres and the tyres that came off his car were still in pretty decent shape," revealed Horner. "That gave us the confidence to go back onto the soft tyre. But the Virtual Safety Car couldn't have really come at a worse moment. That's at the point we had to convert."
Mercedes’ analysis will no doubt further increase the confidence flowing through the team. With seven races remaining and a first victory of the season seeming more likely than ever, their loyal fanbase has renewed hope in 2022. The Silver Arrows were unable to get their first P1 in Max Verstappen’s backyard, but you wouldn’t rule out it happening in Ferrari’s at this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix.