The Dutch Grand Prix was the closest Mercedes has come to winning a Formula One race this season, yet the team fell just short of beating Max Verstappen and Red Bull. Ultimately a faster car and stronger strategy won at Zandvoort, but there were a number of "what ifs" after the race that raised the question over whether Mercedes could have won with a bit more luck or a better strategy.
Lewis Hamilton's frustration at the situation was clear over the radio as he unleashed an expletive-laden message to his team, which he later apologised for. In the final 12 laps after a safety car restart, he dropped from first place to fourth as Mercedes took a gamble on tyre strategy that didn't pay off.
The situation in that final part of the race, with Hamilton on older tyres defending from Verstappen on fresh softs, had uncanny parallels with the season finale in Abu Dhabi last year when Verstappen snatched the championship from Hamilton. The race result in Zandvoort followed the same trend, with Verstappen coming out on top, but it's unfair to accuse Mercedes of failing to learn from its mistakes in a race where it defied expectations to put itself in the mix for victory in the first place.
Ultimately, given the faultless performance of Verstappen and Red Bull, it's hard to imagine a course of events in which Mercedes could have won the Dutch Grand Prix, but there are clear signs that the eight-time constructors' champions are getting close.
Why did Mercedes not pit Hamilton under the safety car?
With the benefit of hindsight, Mercedes should have pitted Hamilton for soft tyres under the late safety car period. It's very unlikely it would have led to victory, but it almost certainly would have secured a double podium, with Hamilton coming home second and teammate George Russell third. There was time for both cars to pit and rejoin ahead of Charles Leclerc in fourth, regardless of Ferrari's decision to change tyres or stay out, but instead Mercedes took a gamble with Hamilton's car.
The reasoning was clear. Before the safety car, Verstappen was cruising to a comfortable victory, but when Valtteri Bottas' Alfa Romeo stopped on the pit straight with a power unit issue, the race was thrown wide open. The choice of whether to pit under the resulting safety car was posed to all teams, and Red Bull, knowing the pace advantage the fresh tyres would offer, decided to sacrifice the lead of the race to put Verstappen on softs. It was the right decision, but team boss Christian Horner admitted after the race that it wasn't easy.
"It was a big call," Horner said. "You've got your home driver leading in front of 105,000 people and you decide to pit him for the soft tyres and concede track position behind two Mercedes."
That gave Mercedes a dilemma: Do the same as Verstappen and remain in second place on the same tyres as the Red Bull or stay out, take track position at the front of the field and attempt to defend position on slower tyres.
Given that overtaking is not easy at Zandvoort -- requiring over a second's worth of pace advantage to attempt a pass -- there was half a chance Hamilton could hold off the Red Bull. Hamilton's medium tyres had completed only five racing laps following his second stop under an earlier virtual safety car, so Mercedes likely calculated it might be in good enough shape to offer a fighting chance against Verstappen on softs, especially if Hamilton could keep the Red Bull at bay immediately after the restart.
Mercedes had discussed the potential for this kind of scenario in its prerace strategy briefing, and the drivers had agreed with team management to take a risk if a chance of winning the race presented itself. It was with this in mind that Mercedes kept Hamilton on track.
"The thinking was that we had a medium that had five racing laps on plus track position, and we took that decision," Wolff explained. "I don't think that on a par with the same tyre we could have overtaken the Red Bull with the straight-line speed.
"We've seen that with [Carlos] Sainz that we aren't really able to pass him at the beginning, so that was the call. Every single day of my life I would rather risk everything for winning the race rather than cementing in second and third."
Initially it looked like Mercedes would also keep Russell on track, giving Hamilton something of a buffer at the restart to retain his lead over Verstappen. However, Russell then radioed the team asking for soft tyres as the cars prepared to follow the safety car through the pit lane. Mercedes claims it was already weighing its options with Russell before the call came from the driver himself and ultimately came to the same conclusion to split the strategy between the cars around the same time.
By pitting Russell, it removed Hamilton's buffer at the restart, but Mercedes was hopeful that Russell on fresh tyres could make life difficult for Verstappen by attacking the Red Bull.
"We just split the strategy," Wolff said. "If we would have left both out on the same tyre, we would have had the blocker and the two cars in the front, but if the new tyre was really much faster, then both the cars may have been eaten up, also maybe by Leclerc, and everyone else who came behind.
"So we split the strategy, kept track position and maybe the car is fast enough to do this rather than to take any other decision."
Ultimately, Mercedes' plan failed instantaneously as Verstappen cruised past Hamilton at the restart. The Mercedes driver later revealed he'd been in the wrong engine mode ahead of the restart, which appeared to contribute to his poor performance as they went down the pit straight, but he insisted it wasn't the defining factor in losing the position.
"I was late to get to race mode, but they were just so fast on the straights," Hamilton said.
It's also worth noting that Hamilton opted to initiate the restart before the final corner rather than after it, which the lead driver is allowed to do. In a Formula 2 race earlier in the day, race winner Felipe Drugovich delayed a similar restart until he was much closer to the control line, giving his rivals less of a chance to line up an overtaking move on the run to Turn 1 -- albeit at the cost of a pile up in the midfield as some drivers farther back misread the situation.
It's impossible to say if Hamilton would have retained the lead employing a similar tactic, but the combination of the wrong engine mode and the timing of the restart undoubtedly helped Verstappen's chances of passing into Turn 1. The point, however, is somewhat redundant, as it very quickly became clear that Hamilton's lack of pace on his medium tyres in the following laps would have made him a sitting duck for Verstappen on softs at some point before the chequered flag.
Would Hamilton have won without the virtual safety car for Tsunoda?
A more interesting question is whether Hamilton would have won had the race played out without a virtual safety car or a safety car. Mercedes opted for a one-stop strategy from the start of the race, starting both cars on mediums while its direct rivals opted for softs. By running long into the race and completing one fewer pit stop, Hamilton was on course to take the lead back from Verstappen had the Red Bull driver made his second pit stop under normal racing conditions.
As it turned out, Yuki Tsunoda stopping on track and causing a virtual safety car presented Red Bull with the opportunity to complete its second pit stop and retain the lead. At the time, the unusual retirement of Tsunoda raised eyebrows, as an AlphaTauri stopping on track essentially handed sister team Red Bull the victory, but a clearer explanation of what happened to Tsunoda's car emerged after the race.
The Japanese driver initially stopped on track believing a rear wheel was not correctly fitted to his car after his pit stop and started loosening his seat belts to get out. The team, believing the wheel was fitted correctly, told him to continue back to the pits, where it refastened his belts, fitted a new set of tyres and released him once more. When he went back out, Tsunoda could still feel the car behaving strangely at which point it was diagnosed as a differential issue and he was told to stop on track. It was an unfortunate turn of events for both Tsunoda and Mercedes' strategy.
Had the race played out without the virtual safety car, however, Mercedes expected it would have resulted in a thrilling showdown in the final laps as Verstappen, on fresher tyres, closed down Hamilton.
"The simulation says that Max would have come out eight seconds behind us with 20 laps to go," Wolff said. "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. He would have caught us like six laps to the end. It was very close."
But while Mercedes was expecting Verstappen to pit 20 laps from the end and go to hard tyres, Red Bull claims it was actually looking to go longer on its second stint and switch to softs for an all-out attack at the end. Team boss Christian Horner went as far as saying the Tsunoda virtual safety car, which presented the opportunity to pit and come out ahead of Hamilton, was actually less desirable than letting the race play out normally.
"The VSC made life a little trickier because the pace of the Mercedes seemed pretty strong on the hard tyre," he said. "But they got a huge stint to do on it. At that point in time we were going to go probably go back to the soft tyre.
"We knew we'd probably concede track position, but we had the pace with the offset. Then the virtual safety car came out and we switched to the hard tyres because of how we'd seen it performing, which again just protected track position for Max."
It's a shame the race didn't play out, putting former championship rivals Hamilton and Verstappen in a straight fight for the first time this season, but it was also promising for Mercedes to be back in contention for victory. What's more, Hamilton's chances would have been bolstered further in the race had his qualifying lap on Saturday not been ruined by Sergio Perez spinning on track ahead of him. Mercedes figured it had the pace to start the race from the front row, which would have put Hamilton in an even stronger position to fight for victory.
"It's been such a roller-coaster ride this year, you know, and this was such a good race," Hamilton said. "The car was feeling better than it felt all year long. And obviously after a difficult race last week [in Belgium].
"Yesterday, I was up until the last corner where the yellow flag was, I was 0.7s up on everyone. So we had pace.
"The car was different to how it had been all year long. And when I got up to second, I had that hard tyre on and I was catching them and I was thinking, 'We might be fighting for a win here. And potentially a 1-2 [finish].'
"And then the safety cars and the frickin' emotions went everywhere, because I knew that at that point, I'd lost it. "Before the restart. I knew when everyone was on the soft tyre behind me, I knew that there was no way I was going to hold them behind me."
Ultimately, Sunday wasn't Mercedes' day, but it was a clear sign of progress for the reigning constructors' champions. On tracks where high-downforce setups are required, the Mercedes is now the best of the rest just behind Red Bull and ahead of Ferrari. Given the team started the season struggling to head the midfield, it represents a big step in the right direction.