No stopping Max Verstappen as Lewis Hamilton reaches his crossroads

Dutch Grand Prix set to be a festival for world champion, while the seven-time winner just wants the season to end

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Glory, glory and more glory for Max Verstappen. Sunday’s Dutch Grand Prix should be a cake walk bathed in orange in front of his adoring home fans.

And part of a developing nightmare for everyone else, especially Lewis Hamilton.

The grizzled old champ is in that place where there are career-ending dark days ahead or massive steps towards redemption with that historic eighth title. There’s no middle way when you stand at the crossroads. It’s the price of being a legend.

But first Verstappen. Here’s a stat for you: the young Dutchman has won the last two races from 10th and 14th and that’s the first time anyone has won consecutive races from lower than 10th in 62 years.

The odd flash in the pan victory from the deeper recesses of the grid happens almost every year. But to do it twice in a row and match a 62-year-old record is a sign of devastating dominance even when things are going against you.

Let’s not forget Ferrari did the same with Charles Leclerc in taking an engine grid penalty, and where did he end up in the Belgian Grand Prix? Nowhere. He even tried to beat Verstappen’s fastest lap with 28 kilos less fuel and failed by six-tenths of a second.

The Monegasque needed to take Spa by the scruff of the neck to boost Ferrari at the start of the second half of the season. But as Verstappen was decisive in slicing through the pack, Leclerc was hesitant.

These days he cuts a disconsolate figure knowing a championship that had his name on it in Bahrain has been fumbled and ultimately stolen by Verstappen. In all likelihood the Dutchman will win more than four of the remaining eight races to record the most dominant season in history.

As for Hamilton, a different game is afoot.

He went to Spa talking about regeneration and renewed chances of victory after the summer break.

Verstappen wins 2021 Dutch GP

It turned out he was dreaming. Two days later he described his 1.8 sec gap to pole as “a kick in the teeth”.

And for the first time in his Mercedes’ career he admitted he couldn’t wait to see the back of his car at the season’s end.

It’s an F1 truism that cars born bad (ie slow) normally stay that way. You can always make a fast car reliable or more predictable but slow cars usually remain slow.

And it appears Mercedes have finally accepted this truth. Their no sidepods concept is a dud.

So what to do? Well, there are two paths: go for a radical redesign of what they’ve got or abandon the concept altogether and start afresh. The problem is there is no guarantee a new path will be any more successful, especially in a budget-control era.

Let’s not forget what is at stake here: among other things Hamilton’s place as the greatest driver of all time. Undisputed.

I would contend that is all he is hanging around for now. One more championship. And it’s clearly not going to happen this season. So the focus – for him at least – is already on 2023.

Of course he loves his racing but it is clear that he has limited affection for messing around in the hope of making fifth or sixth or, if he’s lucky, a podium. And who can blame him?

The clash with Fernando Alonso at Spa was a careless mistake that a fully focused Hamilton battling for a title would never have made.

So it appears Mercedes’ best option is to ditch this year’s attempts to refine a bad car and turn the rest of the season into a glorified test session for 2023.

After all, the best Mercedes can hope for now is third overall and they are not about that. The odd lucky win would be plaster on a fatal disease.

Look at Ferrari: they consolidated in 2021 after two of the worst seasons in their history. It wasn’t pretty for a while but they have bounced back instantly as an (admittedly flawed) championship contender.

As for Zandvoort on Sunday, Verstappen won last year’s race at a canter and should do the same again on a fast, flowing and bumpy circuit with an old-school feel.

Updated: September 01, 2022, 5:14 AM
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