The Dutch Grand Prix is bonkers. And it’s not even race day yet.


ZANDVOORT, Netherlands — If anyone needed any confirmation the Dutch Grand Prix is going to be rowdy, they got it on Friday.

Several minutes into the second practice session the Zandvoort crowd, almost at full capacity on the day F1 sets aside for two hours of practice, erupted like a football stadium witnessing a late winner. You didn’t need to be near a screen to work out why — Lewis Hamilton was out with an engine issue.

It wasn’t anything dramatic either. Hamilton’s car had delivered some worrying data to the Mercedes pit wall and he stopped by the side of the road. Things like that happen all the time in practice and Hamilton and Mercedes downplayed the severity of the stoppage after the session, although it has left the championship leader lacking track time going into final practice and qualifying on Saturday.

But the response set the tone perfectly for what is to follow this weekend. Hamilton is playing the role of a pantomime villain as the championship rival of Dutch national hero Max Verstappen.

Hamilton, who has previously said being booed “fuels” him, seemed to be relishing the occasion.

“It’s amazing to see the crowd,” Hamilton said. “So many people here, good to see people hyped and the first time we’ve seen the full, full energy, well not the full yet, we will probably see it over the next few days but all the energy that the Dutch fans bring.”

But it’s clear what kind of reception Hamilton and Verstappen expect later in the weekend. During Thursday’s media day, Verstappen said it was pointless to ask Dutch fans not to boo Hamilton — something which happened when he claimed pole position at the Hungarian Grand Prix earlier this year. Hamilton collided with Verstappen en-route to winning the British Grand Prix in July, taking what was already a tense rivalry and turning it nuclear.

Verstappen, 23, is the reason F1 came back here in the first place. The youngest ever driver to have started and won an F1 race, his phenomenal rise from green rookie in 2015 to one of F1’s top talents made the return of Zandvoort a matter of when, not if.

Zandvoort itself is a superb setting for the next chapter in the Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry. The small, picturesque seaside town, surrounded by dunes, has a population of just 17,000 people but 70,000 people are set to attend on each of the three days the track is open. That number would have been 105,000 a day, but race organisers were forced to scale down the event due to the pandemic — COVID-19 already forced this race to miss its original return race date in 2020.

Logistically, Zandvoort should be a nightmare. There’s one route in from Amsterdam on the train and limited spaces to park nearby. Twelve trains go to and from the capital every hour and drop off fans 20 minutes away from the circuit.

Environmental concerns and protests have lingered in the background for years but none have come close to stopping the event. They have at least forced organisers to ban nearly all cars from the event, with some 27,000 fans making use of the more frequent train service and several thousand cycling in from the surrounding area.

All of it added to the atmosphere on arrival. It felt like a music festival, with thousands of people walking towards the circuit. On that walk you could hear any one of the following — F1’s theme song, a song titled ‘Max, Max, Super Max’ which has become an anthem of sorts for Verstappen fans, or just a repetitive baseline lingering in the background.

You also don’t have to look hard for overpriced Verstappen merchandise. Hats, flags, mugs, glasses, they’re everywhere. There are even orange capes being handed out for free to anyone who’ll wear one.

But the fanfare isn’t just for Verstappen. On Friday, a Hamilton fan from the U.K. paid £1,600 to fly a plane over Zandvoort’s circuit and beach with the message: ‘7 x WDC! Simply lovely! #TeamLH’.

The plane did several laps of the area as cars lapped around the circuit beneath.

As Friday is always the tamest day of an F1 weekend, Saturday and Sunday promise to be spectacular.

Added to all of that is the circuit itself. The modified layout is unique to any other race on the calendar in that it has two banked corners, similar to what you would find on an oval, at the beginning and end of the lap.

It provides one of the great unknowns to this race weekend. Circuit bosses hope the different lines drivers can take through those two corners — effectively giving the option to go low or go high — will spice up racing on what otherwise looks like a circuit too narrow to provide many overtaking opportunities.

Given the fact Hamilton and Verstappen have both indicated they will not back down in any future wheel to wheel encounters this season, the stage seems to be set for another thrilling encounter between this season’s two protagonists.



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