PALMER: Could Hamilton have won the 2022 Dutch Grand Prix with a different Safety Car strategy?
Mercedes were closer than ever to a 2022 maiden win at Zandvoort before Max Verstappen finally triumphed for Red Bull. But could a different strategy in response to the end of the safety car have allowed the Silver Arrows to claim victory? Former F1 driver and F1.com analyst Jolyon Palmer investigates…
Zandvoort was still likely to offer Mercedes a better chance after missing out on the podium at Spa.
Higher downforce circuits have generally been kinder to them this season and Zandvoort is not so different from Budapest where George Russell took his first pole of the year. But, like Budapest, it was another race where the team had to settle for second place behind the seemingly untouchable Max Verstappen.
Qualifying has often been an Achilles’ heel for the Silver Arrows this season, and Sergio Perez’s rotation in the final round of Q3 meant they had no chance of improving on their fourth and sixth positions. from the first heats in Zandvoort.
HIGHLIGHTS: Watch qualifying action at Zandvoort as Verstappen narrowly beats Leclerc
Toto Wolff then said Hamilton was ‘playing for pole’ until he backed off, and looking at the data, that statement isn’t wrong – Hamilton has been a fraction on Verstappen’s pole time as he fell back.
But it’s also true that he was likely to end up losing because he was relatively weak on the starting line, where the Mercedes usually lost a lot of time due to Red Bull’s impressive top speed. With the Ferraris trailing Verstappen so closely on Saturday, it’s highly likely Hamilton would have finished fourth even without Perez’s yellow flags, unless he pulled off something very special on the final corner.
The best news for Mercedes came on the grid, as they exploited the 2022 rule change to start with a different tire than their competitors.
Too often this year, teams have converged on the same starting tire, despite having free choice for the first time in a decade. It’s because of a largely inherent conservative approach among quarterbacks, especially teams at the peak end of the grid where there’s a lot to lose.
When Mercedes saw their rivals don the softs, it opened up their strategic possibilities. They might try one stop while the others should probably do two. Track position was in short supply for their often race-fast car and cutting out a pit stop gave them a chance to defend from the front rather than having to attack from further back.
POWER RANKINGS: Who dazzled our judges at the Dutch Grand Prix?
Without the safety cars – virtual and real – I’m sure it would have been a close finish between Hamilton and Verstappen, but Verstappen had already shown how easy it was for him to pass when he mowed down Russell in the middle of the race . . Red Bull’s racing ability with its high top speed would have probably resulted in a victory for Max anyway, although it’s a shame we were denied this battle.
The last call for Mercedes must have been agonizing to make and the pressure was greater than ever, given their one-two position with just a dozen laps to go.
I can understand why they were reluctant to pit Hamilton for the lead. Compared to Spa, track position is more important at Zandvoort, and with Russell between Hamilton and Verstappen on his softs, the seven-time champion had a significant buffer for the restart.
The complication arose when Russell called his pit stop.
TECH TUESDAY: Why was Red Bull’s speed advantage reduced so dramatically at Zandvoort?
Jolyon Palmer analysis: Could Mercedes have won at Zandvoort?
Under the safety car, the drivers frantically try to assess what their best option is, through constant dialogue with the team, before being locked into their fate. And while the team has a say in the pits, a driver can use his influence to sway the team’s opinion.
That’s exactly what Russell did, as he argued he was going to be a duck sitting on his cooling medium tires, and better pull over. Mercedes agreed, and the first Hamilton to know was to look in his mirrors as the cars raced through the pit lane and see his teammate dive out of Verstappen’s way. Initially Hamilton was fine with the choice of strategy, but now it was a direct fight with Verstappen on the softs, he was understandably frustrated.
READ MORE: ‘I’d rather take the risk of winning,’ says Wolff as he defends Mercedes’ safety car strategy at Zandvoort
This was again the case in Abu Dhabi, or even a repeat of Silverstone this year where Leclerc was overwhelmed on the restart and fell back. There was nothing Hamilton could do to deny Verstappen the lead and the Dutchman thrilled the home crowd of 100,000 as Russell’s strategic call earned him second place.
Looking back, it was a brilliant call from Russell and one that Hamilton could have made as well, especially given the difference in seniority and experience between the two.
2022 Dutch Grand Prix: Russell makes late call to stop for soft tires while behind safety car
However, in reality, the circumstances were different. Russell had nothing to lose by swooping. He was going to finish second at best, but most likely third with the arrival of Verstappen, so the pits guaranteed him a safer finish and a chance to beat his team-mate. For Hamilton, the choice of pits was much more difficult because unlike Russell, he had the chance to win.
Once Mercedes pitted a car, they should have pitted the two. In fact, it was also their only hope of winning. In a normal world, both cars would have emerged behind Verstappen to finish second and third and maximize their points, but there’s a slim chance Hamilton could have come out ahead of Verstappen in the end, had George backed Verstappen enough for a double stack under Safety Car.
WATCH: SAY WHAT? ! Sainz pleads stewards as Hamilton turns the airwaves blue in Zandvoort’s top team radio
You have to be careful not to drive ‘unnecessarily slowly’ and incur the wrath of the stewards in these cases, but given they also had a car between them, it’s possible Hamilton could have edged Verstappen with both on new apps at the end. Was this their opportunity?
From fourth and sixth on the grid, they still scored some good points and Russell had a brilliant career-best result. But for the team and for Hamilton, there are just seven races left to clinch that elusive victory in 2022.
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