Max Verstappen feared Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were leaving Red Bull behind before Formula One's mid-season break, but the tables have turned and now the Dutchman wants to pull further clear.

Verstappen won five of the first nine races in 2021 to take control of the title race, only to then earn only five points across the next two races – three of them from sprint qualifying at Silverstone.

It meant Hamilton entered last month's break with a six-point advantage as he seeks a record-breaking eighth drivers' championship.

Red Bull regrouped, however, and Verstappen has claimed consecutive wins in Belgium, the country of his birth, and his home nation the Netherlands.

After his pole at the Dutch Grand Prix this weekend, the 23-year-old had complete control of the race at Zandvoort, able to hold off Hamilton and become the first Dutch driver to win at home.

Red Bull again showed greater pace than Mercedes, with Hamilton feeling the gap has widened since the season's resumption.

"I'm giving it everything. We're giving it absolutely everything," Hamilton told a post-race news conference.

"Even since the first race, these guys have just had such a strong car all year. We're trying as hard as we can.

"We had a couple of races where we looked like we were just about on par with them or just slightly ahead, but there's only been a couple of those.

"Then they took a big leap, and it's been difficult. You can't really overtake in a lot of these places we've been to, because we are so closely matched.

"There's nothing really more I can say – we just have to keep our heads down, keep working, keep pushing.

"We are ahead in the team championship, which is great, but of course we need to pick up some speed if we want to win races in future."

Verstappen explained this improvement was in response to Hamilton's performances in Great Britain and Hungary.

"For me, they had pole position at Silverstone, even though of course it didn't count as pole position, and they were ahead in Hungary, where they definitely had more pace than us," Verstappen said.

"Of course, Hungary was a crazy race with what happened, with the wet and the start, so I think you shouldn't look at stats.

"You should look at the realistic pace that there was and not look always at the race result, because I think definitely they would have won Hungary if everything went normal.

"That's why I really thought in the break, I was like, 'We really need to speed things up, because otherwise they're going to run away with it'.

"I think we did, we did pick it up a bit, [but] I feel like we still need a bit more.

"It's heading into the right direction, but there are quite a lot of different kind of tracks coming up, so it will definitely swing both ways. We just have to keep on it, keep pushing and keep bringing new bits to the car."

One area in which Hamilton has noted Red Bull progress all year long is with their Honda power unit, which made Verstappen "a rocket off the start" at Zandvoort.

"They've made a big, big step forward this year with their engine," Hamilton said. "You saw it last year, they weren't the greatest at starts.

"They've improved their power – just the whole power unit's massively better this year on all aspects for them.

"Naturally, their driveability and their starts... they're the quickest starters this year, I think, overall. We've got some work to do in lots of different areas."

Hamilton still could have won on Sunday, he felt, but Mercedes would have had to be "perfect".

"I think today we probably needed everything to be perfect to even have the slightest chance of getting past them through a strategy," Hamilton said.

"Pit stops needed to be on point, strategy needed to be on point, traffic also, but none of those three were ideal today."

Max Verstappen revelled in living up to the hype after becoming the first home winner of the Dutch Grand Prix. 

On a fine weekend for the Red Bull superstar, Verstappen reclaimed the Formula One world championship lead from Lewis Hamilton as he made history at Zandvoort. 

Already one of only two Benelux drivers to triumph in the region, the Dutchman coasted to victory to celebrate in front of a euphoric orange-clad crowd. 

"I've never seen a reaction like that in all my career, to any driver," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports. 

Verstappen, who passed 1,000 laps leading in his F1 career en route to finishing 20.932 seconds clear of Hamilton, said over the cheers of his noisy supporters: "As you can hear already, it is just incredible. 

"The expectations were high going into the weekend and it's never easy to fulfil that, but I'm so happy to win here, to take the lead as well in the championship. 

"It's just an amazing day with the whole crowd. It's incredible." 

This was Verstappen's seventh victory of the year – all of which have come in Europe, where he had only five prior triumphs. 

"It's definitely a very good day," he said. "The start was very important – I think we did that well. 

"Then, of course, Mercedes tried to make it difficult for us, but we countered them all the time really well. We can be really pleased with the whole team performance today." 

Hamilton pitted three times in all, eventually settling for the fastest lap as Mercedes' strategy failed to make up the deficit to a faster Red Bull car. 

The Silver Arrows' premier driver was one of just three men on the grid born when F1 last visited Zandvoort in 1985. 

It now becomes only the fifth circuit Hamilton has raced at in F1 without winning, but he enjoyed the experience. 

"What a race, what a crowd. Honestly, it's been an amazing weekend," Hamilton said. 

"Max did an incredible job, so congratulations to him. I gave it absolutely everything today, flat out, pushed as hard as I could, but they were just too quick for us." 

Max Verstappen sprinted back to the top of the Formula One world championship with a historic home win at the Dutch Grand Prix, where Lewis Hamilton questioned Mercedes' scrambled strategy.

Verstappen had claimed a precious pole position at Zandvoort, where the tight confines of the circuit make overtaking extremely difficult.

So it proved on Sunday, even as Mercedes sought various different paths to glory.

Hamilton pitted twice and appeared to intimate he would like to stop again, but the sheer pace of Verstappen's Red Bull kept him in the clear, becoming the first Dutch driver to win in his own country.

It was comfortable from the first corner, where Verstappen moved across to block Hamilton before racing away into the distance, soon passing 1,000 laps led in F1.

Hamilton pushed hard before stopping, yet Verstappen responded immediately and gained 0.9 seconds in the pit lane.

With Valtteri Bottas starting from third, Mercedes were at least able to slow Verstappen for a time by having their second man hold the race up for around two laps.

But Verstappen passed Bottas in front of the grandstand to the delight of the orange-clad crowd and quickly again opened up a gap to Hamilton that had closed to under a second.

With that deficit only increasing, Mercedes gambled and brought Hamilton in again to make use of his second set of medium tyres, yet he returned to the race in traffic among the back markers, meaning any advantage was minimal as Verstappen again followed his rival in – although having to switch to hards.

Red Bull retained control of the race, which Mercedes finally conceded, calling in Hamilton for a third time to claim the additional point for the fastest lap – still not enough to keep Verstappen off the summit.

'We've gone too soon'

Sergio Perez's miserable performance in qualifying meant he spent his Sunday attempting to close on the midfield, leaving Verstappen alone at the front.

Meanwhile, Mercedes had two men in contention, and Toto Wolff outlined plans for a split strategy.

It was Hamilton who stopped early in Mercedes' first tactical manoeuvre and, when that did not work, the Silver Arrows soon called the defending champion in again – another failed move that frustrated Hamilton.

"We haven't got an advantage," he said. "We've gone too soon on this. There was still so much life left in that last tyre and we rushed it."

More Russell regret

George Russell was bidding to become the first Williams driver to earn back-to-back podiums since Bottas in 2014, although simply collecting points in a third consecutive race was a far more realistic objective after his crash in Q2.

Even that proved beyond the Briton, though. A five-second penalty for speeding in the pit lane all but ended his hopes.

There may be news to lift the spirits in the coming days, with an announcement from Mercedes regarding their 2022 line-up anticipated, but this was a weekend to forget.


IN THE POINTS

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +20.932secs
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +56.460
4. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +1 lap
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +1 lap
6. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1 lap
7. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +1 lap
8. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +1 lap
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +1 lap
10. Lando Norris (McLaren) +1 lap

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 224.5
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 221.5
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 123
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 114
5. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) – 108

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 345
2. Red Bull – 333
3. Ferrari – 182
4. McLaren – 170
5. Alpine – 90

Lewis Hamilton knows strategy will be key in a "tough" Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, having agonisingly qualified in second.

The tight confines of this track mean pole position is key, and it was home hopeful Max Verstappen who took it by 0.038 seconds – his seventh of the year and 10th in Formula One.

Hamilton has work to do then, and he does not have the benefit of past experiences at Zandvoort.

The Mercedes superstar is one of only three drivers on the grid who was born when the event was last in F1 in 1985, while he has not raced at this circuit since the 2005 F3 Euro Series.

Having broken down on Friday and missed a session, too, Hamilton's knowledge of the likely race pace is very limited.

"I haven't done any long running, so I don't really know too much of what the track's like with heavy fuel," he explained in a news conference.

"I only have my reference from 2005, and I don't remember that.

"I have no doubt it's going to be tough tomorrow, just from watching these guys – I think Max and his team were quicker than us on the long run.

"It's not a track that you can particularly overtake in, so it's going to be [about] strategy tomorrow and how you can utilise the tyres."

Zandvoort became just the fourth of 34 tracks Hamilton has raced at in F1 without taking pole, but he still enjoyed the experience.

"What a track," he said. "Wow. It is absolutely incredible driving this track, with the banked corners, and today was one of the sessions I've enjoyed most.

"Qualifying here is just phenomenal with the light car. [It was] so close at the end, but obviously yesterday didn't help. I'm glad we got back to where we needed to be today."

Further improvement and a victory on Sunday would make Hamilton the first man to reach 100 F1 wins, but Verstappen is chasing history of his own.

Having last week, at the Belgian Grand Prix, become only the second Benelux driver to win in the region, he could now break new ground as the first Dutchman to celebrate a home victory.

Verstappen acknowledged the importance of his qualifying performance but forecast challenges ahead.

"It's still very difficult to pass around here," he said. "Even in qualifying, everyone was trying to find a gap, not like some other tracks where everyone's trying to find a tow. I do think it's going to be tough.

"But also it's quite tough on tyres around here with all the high-speed corners, so it's not a very straightforward race. There are a lot of laps around here.

"Of course, it's important to be up front."

A grinning Max Verstappen celebrated taking a home Dutch Grand Prix pole ahead of Lewis Hamilton on Saturday, while George Russell and Williams endured a day to forget.

Verstappen is only three points behind Formula One world championship leader and defending champion Lewis Hamilton after last week's controversial Belgian GP, and he has the backing of a fervent crowd this weekend.

No Dutch driver has ever won this event, but Verstappen will attack the race from pole position on its return after 35 years away.

The Red Bull superstar edged out Hamilton, who recovered well from missing a session on Saturday after breaking down, and another Mercedes in Valtteri Bottas.

Sergio Perez failed to even escape Q1, though, meaning Verstappen will not have the support of his team-mate at the front of the grid.

"It's an amazing feeling of course to get pole position here," Verstappen said over a significant din. "The crowd is incredible, and today was very enjoyable.

"The car was really nice to drive, and this track as well for qualifying, once the fuel comes out, it's really cool."

Verstappen had escaped a penalty for a potential red-flag breach when overtaking Lance Stroll in FP2 on Saturday.

And pole is set to be especially important at Zandvoort, where overtaking is always difficult.

The Dutchman's final run of one minute and 8.885 seconds increased his Q3 advantage, but Hamilton's late dash – 0.038 seconds slower – at least put him on the front row, enjoying a better outing than countryman Russell, who was second last time out.

It had looked like being another positive day for Williams – even with team principal Jost Capito absent as a precaution after contact with Kimi Raikkonen prior to his positive coronavirus test.

The team came into this race having had both drivers collect points in back-to-back races for the first time since 2016.

And Russell and Nicholas Latifi each again advanced through to Q2.

But there their day took a turn, with Russell prompting a first red flag when he lost the rear of his car heading into the final corner.

The short delay did not give the Briton enough time to resume the session, as he explained there was "a bit of damage on the rear suspension" but "nothing the guys won't be able to fix overnight".

Russell told Sky Sports: "We weren't quite on the pace this week as much as we would have hoped, and I was on a really good lap.

"I was just pushing too hard and ultimately just attacked that last corner too much and lost the rear. I'm sorry to the team, because that's not how we wanted to end qualifying."

By the time Russell faced the media, the session had been disrupted again, with team-mate Latifi careering into the barrier.

That brought a premature end to Q2 that at least gave Russell P11 as a consolation, knocking Lando Norris out.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:08.885
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.038secs
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.337
4. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.593
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.642
6. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.652
7. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) +0.705
8. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +1.048
9. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.071
10. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +1.281

Lewis Hamilton knows Mercedes are "on the back foot" after he broke down in practice at the Dutch Grand Prix on Friday.

Hamilton set the pace in the first session at Zandvoort, but lost power after completing just three laps of an FP2 that was halted by a red flag due to Nikita Mazepin going into the Turn 11 gravel.

The seven-time Formula One world champion, who leads Max Verstappen by only three points in the battle for the title, was not overly concerned by the setback as Mercedes investigated the issue.

Asked if he knew what the cause of the problem was, the Brit replied: “Not yet. I was just in there [the garage], I just lost power, so they just told me to stop, but it’s not the end of the world.

"It's been a beautiful day in terms of weather, it's amazing to see the crowd – there's so many people here – it's good to see people hyped and the first time we’ve see the full, full energy.

"Not full yet, but we’ll probably see it in the next few days – all the energy the Dutch fans bring.

"It's more annoying that we only got like 20 minutes of running with that red flag. It naturally puts us on the back foot, but Valtteri [Bottas] looked like he had a good session so probably tomorrow we can try and fill in, make up for some of the time, hopefully.”

Charles Leclerc was fastest in the second session, but Verstappen believes he could have been top of the timesheets in his homeland if the red flag had not been waved.

Red Bull driver Verstappen, who was fifth-fastest, said: "I don’t think it looks very representative from our side in the short run. My lap was on a used set, and the lap I had to abort I think would have been good enough for first.

"Already after one lap, the tyres do drop off a bit. Nevertheless, we will work on a few things where we were not entirely happy in the short runs. But long run looks competitive, so that is always very important."

Max Verstappen believes George Russell will make life "very difficult" for Lewis Hamilton if he replaces Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes next year.

Williams driver Russell has been tipped to take Bottas' seat, with Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff having revealed his desire to finalise his driver line-up for 2022 this month.

Russell stepped in for Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix last year after the seven-time Formula One world champion tested positive for coronavirus.

The 23-year-old also conducted a Pirelli tyre test for Mercedes ahead of the mid-season break and Verstappen thinks his arrival would keep his fellow Brit Hamilton on his toes.

"If he joins then for sure he will make it very difficult for Lewis,” Verstappen, who trails Hamilton by three points in the battle for the title, said ahead of the Dutch Grand Prix this weekend.

"He jumped into the car in Bahrain and basically from lap one he was making it very difficult for Valtteri, so you can only imagine the more experience you gain in that car and the more you get accustomed within the team, naturally you're going to get faster.

"When you do your first race you're guided by the team about setup direction because you just don’t know what to do really, initially, with the car.

"I remember my first race at Red Bull, the thing I said was is that we will just follow a bit what Daniel [Ricciardo] is doing because I have no clue about what this car needs to go quick because even though F1 cars look pretty similar, the way of setting them up can be very different.

"I am very confident - already what you could see with the performance he did in Spa was really good.

"Of course, they set up the car a bit more for wet conditions but nevertheless to do that in a Williams was very impressive. I do expect him to do very well if he gets that seat."

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc echoed Verstappen's sentiments.

“I have actually been team-mates with George for a year in karting and I think what I have seen of him since that time, is just that he is extremely talented," he said.

"Every time he gets into the car he's just quick straightaway, so his talent makes him special.

"If he goes to Mercedes next year, and I hope he does because I think he deserves a chance there, I'm pretty sure he will perform very, very well and impress more than one person."

A Belgian Grand Prix washout only increased the intrigue in the two biggest battles in Formula One this season ahead of a return to Zandvoort.

The Dutch GP is back on the calendar for the first time since 1985 – when only three drivers on the current grid had been born.

There should be more racing this week than at Spa, where rain wrecked the weekend, and plenty of drama is in store.

The two biggest beneficiaries from the two-lap procession last time out were Max Verstappen and George Russell.

Verstappen closed to within three points of Lewis Hamilton thanks to his position on pole, while Russell claimed a first career podium as he bids to beat Valtteri Bottas to the second Mercedes seat.

Existing Silver Arrows stars Hamilton and Bottas will aim to respond on Sunday, although time may have run out for the Finn to make his mark.

LAST TIME OUT

Verstappen just pipped Russell to pole on Saturday at Spa but could not have known then how crucial that final dash would prove.

Sunday's race was delayed and delayed by awful weather, finally starting under the safety car only for a red flag to bring the drivers in once more.

With two laps fulfilled, it was enough to declare a result, giving Verstappen a precious win and Russell an improbable podium.

Until the Hungarian GP, immediately prior to the mid-season break, Russell's only F1 points had come in Hamilton's Mercedes as a reserve last season.

But an eighth-placed finish was followed by his best result yet, capping a great weekend for Williams, who also had Nicholas Latifi in the points for a second straight race.

Bottas was at Williams, alongside Felipe Massa, the last time they had two drivers do that back in 2016, but the team are eager to see Russell now get his chance at Mercedes.

Toto Wolff confirmed in Belgium the call had been made on their 2022 driver, and Williams team principal Jost Capito told Channel 4 of Russell: "I do not want to hang on to him.

"As he, the driver, can win the championship, he deserves a car that can win the championship, and he can do that in the Mercedes.

"And I am convinced he will come back in a couple of years and win the championship with us."

WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE NETHERLANDS

Some racing would be nice, and Hamilton and Bottas will not be the only men out to make amends.

Lando Norris' crash in qualifying cost him dear as he was unable to recover on race day, finishing 14th to continue a mini-slump after retiring in Hungary.

Focus will again be on the top two and on Russell, though.

With Williams having collected more points from their past two grands prix (20) than their previous 71 (15), he will be eyeing another unlikely challenge.

Russell could become the first Williams driver to claim consecutive podiums since Bottas' three in a row in 2014.

"Obviously off the back of last weekend in Spa, everyone just wants to get racing again and put on a show for all of the supporters at the circuit and for those watching around the world on TV," he said.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Return to form for Ferrari? – Back when Zandvoort was a regular on the F1 calendar, Ferrari registered more wins (eight), fastest laps (10) and podiums (24) than any other team at the Dutch GP.

Max out to make history – Verstappen could become the first Dutch driver ever to celebrate a win in his own country in F1. It would be only the third home Benelux win after Verstappen's triumph in Belgium and Jacky Ickx's 1971 Dutch GP success.

Red Bull front row regulars – After Spa, Red Bull have as many pole positions this season (six) as in the rest of the hybrid era combined. Another would take them level with Lotus on 47 all-time, tied fifth.

Hamilton hunting milestones – Still one win shy of 100 in F1, victory would also see Hamilton become the first driver to 4,000 points and give him his 175th podium.

Another to tick off – Hamilton has wins (29) and pole positions (30) at the most different circuits as he prepares to tackle his 34th. Meanwhile, fellow Zandvoort debutant Fernando Alonso has earned points at each of the prior 32 tracks at which he has appeared.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 202.5
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 199.5
3. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 113
4. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 108
5. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) – 104

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 303
2. Red Bull – 291
3. Ferrari – 163
4. McLaren – 163
5. Alpine – 77

Lewis Hamilton hit out at Formula One bosses as he claimed "money talks" after a farcical Belgian Grand Prix was aborted after only two laps.

Heavy downpours prevented any competitive racing from taking place in the shortest F1 race in history at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit on Sunday.

Following an initial delay of half an hour due to the poor conditions, the start was eventually put back by over three hours, with two failed attempts to get under way after Sergio Perez had crashed while making his way out onto the grid.

The crowd were not rewarded for their patience, as a red flag was flown after only two and a half laps with the drivers behind the safety car.

Max Verstappen was declared the winner ahead of George Russell, with Hamilton third – the positions they started on the grid.

With only half points awarded due to F1 regulations, Red Bull's Verstappen cut Hamilton's championship lead to only three points.

The seven-time F1 world champion felt the drivers were only sent out for financial reasons and fans should be given refunds.

"Money talks, and literally the two laps to start the race was all a money scenario," Hamilton told Sky Sports.

"Everyone gets their money – and I think the fans should get theirs back too. Unfortunately, they didn't get to see what they paid for.

"It's a shame we couldn't do the race tomorrow. I love this track as well, so [I am] sad we couldn't do this. Today wasn't a race. I think the sport made a bad choice today.

"Of course, we wanted to race but this minimum of two laps you need to do to count as a race, between the gap [between the race stopping and resuming] it rained consistently.

"There was only one reason why they sent us out. That's why I feel more bad for the fans."

George Russell rejoiced in achieving a maiden Formula One podium finish, even if the circumstances of his second place at the Belgian Grand Prix were a little unorthodox.

The race was called off at a rain-soaked Spa after just two laps behind a safety car, with pole-sitter Max Verstappen declared the winner as British duo Russell and Lewis Hamilton completed the top three.

Heavy rain had delayed the start by over three hours as Sergio Perez had crashed while making his way out onto the grid.

The conditions ultimately made competitive racing impossible, but a two-lap procession was enough to declare a result, with half points awarded.

Williams driver Russell, who performed wonders to qualify second on the grid, felt it was a suitable reward.

"We don't often get rewarded for great qualifyings, but we absolutely did today," said the 23-year-old.

"It was a shame we did not get the race under way but, from my side, and the team's side it's an amazing result.

"The whole team deserve it because there has been so much hard work going into work over the last few years and there has been nothing to show for it, but we absolutely nailed it yesterday."

Red Bull's Verstappen is now just three points behind defending champion Hamilton and he reflected on a crucial performance in Saturday's qualifying, which also took place on a sodden track.

He said: "Now, in hindsight, it was very important to get that pole position. It's a shame to not get proper laps, but the conditions were very tricky.

"At 3.30pm the conditions were decent but the visibility was very low. I think if we'd started at 3pm we would have had a decent chance.

"Big credit to the fans for staying here all day."

Hamilton added: "They knew, at the end, the track wasn't any better and they did it just so they could do two laps and declare a race. I really hope the fans get their money back.

"You couldn't see even five metres in front of you on the straight. You couldn't even see the flashing light in front of you."

The Belgian Grand Prix was called off at a rain-soaked Spa after just two laps, though that was still enough racing for Max Verstappen to claim a victory that cuts Lewis Hamilton's championship lead.

Heavy downpours ruined Formula One's return after the mid-season break, with the start delayed by over three hours after Sergio Perez had crashed while making his way out onto the grid.

Eventually the cars did get out onto the track with the plan to stage a one-hour race amid time constraints, only for the red flag to again be waved after the field had tip-toed around behind the safety car.

However, having managed to successfully get around the circuit twice, a final result was declared with half points awarded.

Having claimed pole position in qualifying on Saturday, Verstappen was awarded the victory, his sixth of a hugely impressive 2021 campaign for Red Bull.

Hamilton, meanwhile, had to settle for third place, behind fellow Briton George Russell. It means the reigning world champion leads the driver standings by just three points with 10 rounds to go.

"It's a win but not how you want to win. Today a big credit goes to all the fans around the track for staying here the whole day in the rain, the cold, windy conditions. They are actually the bigger winners today," Verstappen said.

Racing had already been pushed back from the scheduled start of 15:00 local time (14:00 BST) when Perez provided a further complication. The Red Bull driver lost control in the tricky conditions and skidded into a barrier. Unable to reverse out, he climbed out and appeared set to be out of the race.

But, with his team having time to work on the damage amid the lengthy stoppage, the Mexican was cleared by race director Michael Masi to resume from the pit lane.

In the end, the entire grid returned from the pits behind the safety car to try and get under way, only for the red flag to be waved again. Not long after, it was confirmed racing had been stopped, bringing a rather damp and disappointing end to proceedings.

 

George Russell earned a front-row spot for the Belgian Grand Prix as it was revealed Mercedes have decided whether to recruit him for next season.

The young British driver defied expectations of what the Williams car could achieve by producing a stunning qualifying lap in the rain at Spa.

Only a last-ditch effort by title hopeful Max Verstappen denied Russell a first career pole, while Lewis Hamilton took third place on the grid.

It may be that Hamilton and Russell become team-mates next season, if Mercedes decide to part ways with Valtteri Bottas.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff revealed on Saturday that the team have chosen their line-up for 2022, but that they will keep it private for now.

According to multiple reports, Wolff twice replied "Yes" in a media call when asked if that big call had already been made.

"Today doesn't make any difference," Wolff said. "We know what we have with George."

Russell is a part of Mercedes' young driver programme and was recalled to his parent team to replace a COVID-19 affected Hamilton for the Sakhir Grand Prix last season, an indication of Wolff's high regard for his ability.

Wolff said of Mercedes' recent quandary over Bottas and Russell: "If it would have been an easy decision, we would have made it earlier, because we know what we have with Valtteri and we know what we have with George.

"Both of them deserve being looked after. Both deserve to be looked after in the best possible way, because both of them are part of the family, and we hold them up high."

Russell said there "probably should be" points awarded for qualifying performance, as he reflected on the fact he has taken no such reward yet this weekend. But the 23-year-old believes he can be a force in Sunday's race, particularly if the track is again wet.

He said: "We've obviously got to be realistic, we've got incredibly fast cars behind us, but if the conditions stay the same, we've got a car that's probably quick enough on merit in the top 10.

"But if we're starting from the front row, there's no reason why we can't try to hold that position for the majority of the race. I don't think I’m going to do anything stupid with the cars around me that are clearly going to be faster than us – but there's no reason why we can’t finish, if conditions are like this, top five, and just maximise it. Points is an absolute minimum."

Verstappen said: "This track is amazing to drive in the dry and when you then have a wet qualifying, it's pretty ... I wouldn't say scary but it's really interesting and quite extreme in Q3 when you know that you have to push and try to go to the limit in the wet here."

Championship leader Hamilton said the Mercedes race pace "should be a little bit stronger" than in practice. "But I still think it's going to be a handful, particularly if it's going to be these conditions," he added.

 

The season broke for summer after the Hungarian Grand Prix at the start of August, and Saturday marked a return to the thrills and spills of the sport.

The conditions were particularly tough in the third and final stage of qualifying as heavy rain arrived at the circuit, with Lando Norris crashing out early and leaving his McLaren a heavily damaged heap.

Norris, who had shown excellent pace up to that point, was given the all-clear after an elbow X-ray in hospital and looks set to race.

He had complained of aquaplaning moments before crashing badly, his car sliding into the barrier on the left side of the track at Eau Rouge and spinning out of control across the track.

He said over the team radio: "I let you down, my bad."

However, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel had wanted the session red-flagged before the crash happened and told his team on hearing of the crash: "What did I say, red flag? It's unnecessary. Is he OK?"

Vettel was quickly on the scene and stopped to check Norris was safe before driving on past the damaged McLaren.

There was succour for McLaren as Daniel Ricciardo took fourth on the grid, just ahead of Vettel, but it was a shocker of a day for Ferrari as Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz qualified in 10th and 12th respectively. 

Ferrari racing director Laurent Mekies said: "Our qualifying performance was well below our usual standard and so far this whole weekend has proved very difficult for us."

Max Verstappen took pole position at a soggy Belgian Grand Prix – and incredibly it will be George Russell alongside him on the front row.

A stunning final lap from Russell looked set to give the Williams driver a first career pole, but Formula One title hopeful Verstappen pipped him in the closing seconds.

British 23-year-old Russell, who has been tipped for a move to join Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes next season, said he was "absolutely buzzing" about his performance, defying the limitations of his car with a supreme drive.

Hamilton took third on the grid and saluted Russell's performance, with Daniel Ricciardo fourth.

The qualifying session was disrupted by heavy rain and a heavy crash for Lando Norris – Ricciardo's McLaren team-mate – which caused a hold-up in Q3 of close to 45 minutes.

Moments before smashing into the barriers, Norris complained about the conditions, and Sebastian Vettel had called for the session to be red-flagged before the crash made it an inevitability. Norris was taken to hospital for a precautionary elbow X-ray.

The drivers returned to the wet track eventually, with Hamilton quick to point out that spray remained a problem. He set an early target of 2:01.552 but Russell producing a stunning lap to go quicker.

Verstappen and Hamilton were both out on the track and chasing the new target as the clock ran down, with only the former able to achieve that.

After three weeks since the last race, the Hungarian Grand Prix, this was a return to the thrills and spills of the sport.

"I'm super happy to have a qualifying like this after the break and to have a pole position again," said Verstappen.

Russell has been on the front row once before, but that came in a Mercedes when he stood in for Hamilton last season at the Sakhir Grand Prix. He said getting out of Q1, the initial stage of the qualifying session, had been his primary target at Spa, with anything else a bonus.

"The car was feeling great and I had so much confidence," Russell said. "I was in a fortunate position where I had nothing to lose. We were in Q3 which is not the norm for us and we just had to go for it.

"I'm buzzing, absolutely buzzing. Tomorrow's the important one but it's been mega today. I'm delighted for everyone. If the weather is the same and it's there for the taking tomorrow, we'll go for it."

Hamilton, who edged ahead of Verstappen in the drivers' standings by finishing second in Hungary, said it had been "a very difficult day for everyone" due to the inclement weather.

"Well done to Max and to George," Hamilton added. "If it's like this tomorrow it's going to be tricky to balance straight line speed and downforce."
 

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:59.765
2. George Russell (Williams) +0.321secs
3. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.334
4. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +1.099
5. Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +1.170
6. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +1.399
7. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +2.347
8. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +2.737
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +3.748
10. Lando Norris (McLaren) no complete lap in Q3

The 2021 Formula One title race was just hotting up as a four-week break frustratingly put the season on hold.

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton was trailing challenger Max Verstappen through nine races this year, the last three of which the Red Bull driver won.

But back-to-back dramatic races at Silverstone and the Hungaroring put Hamilton back in the ascendancy.

Verstappen crashed out in an incident involving Hamilton at the British Grand Prix and then could only finish ninth at the Hungarian GP following another early collision.

Tempers frayed between the two races, with the Dutchman furious with Hamilton's role at Silverstone.

A pause in the campaign might have allowed the pair to settle just a little, though, before the action resumes at the Belgian GP on Sunday.

Ahead of an event where Verstappen always enjoys significant support, he said: "I am of course excited to go back to Spa.

"It's my favourite track and it's really cool to drive with so many high-speed corners and elevation changes.

"I'm also looking forward to seeing all the fans who will be coming to support us, and it will be cool to see so much orange in the grandstands again as they couldn't be there last year.

"I also think it is a good place to reset our championship fight and I'm well prepared and feeling good ahead of the weekend."

LAST TIME OUT

Verstappen would have hoped to quickly put the British GP behind him in Hungary, still leading the championship as he lined up on the grid.

But another early flashpoint, this time involving Hamilton's Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas among a host of other drivers, took the Red Bull superstar out of contention.

Although the red flag was soon waved, Verstappen could only recover to finish ninth.

Hamilton's woes centred instead on team tactics, as an apparent error from Mercedes had him back in last place for a time.

Yet another stunning drive took the Briton to third, though, and Sebastian Vettel's disqualification from second boosted Hamilton further up the standings.

Esteban Ocon claimed an unlikely win, but much of the focus remained on the top two in the title race.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN BELGIUM

Fireworks, if the past two races are anything to go by.

Verstappen will surely hope just to get through the first few laps without contact on Sunday, with Red Bull's sensational race pace disrupted by his repeated involvement in crashes.

All this drama has suited Hamilton rather well, meanwhile, with the Mercedes man frustrated by the Silver Arrows' deficit to their rivals prior to those outings.

Perhaps the break will have allowed Mercedes to make up some of that gap, but Hamilton has not sounded hopeful for much of this year. He is on 99 F1 wins, bidding to become the first man to three figures.

The 36-year-old is not the only Mercedes man at the centre of attention, though, as Toto Wolff is yet to confirm their second driver for 2022.

Assuming no decision is made before Sunday, George Russell will hope to lay down a marker with a strong performance in a weak Williams, while Bottas also needs a result.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Successive successes? – Kimi Raikkonen was the last driver to win back-to-back Belgian GPs, with three between 2004 and 2007. Hamilton, who has a record six poles at Spa, was the most recent winner in 2020.

Quali so crucial – The past six winners at the Belgian GP have started from the front row of the grid, with five from pole and one from second. This is the longest such streak in the race's history.

Centurion in silver – This would not be Hamilton's first hundred. He was also the first to register 100 pole positions, with that total now 101 heading to Spa.

Finn to finish? – Bottas will aim to get back on track having failed to place in Hungary. Never in his F1 career has he not registered a position in consecutive races, unable to finish in Russia and the United States in 2015 but recording 12th place in the former.

No closer to Kimi – Fernando Alonso is on course to surpass Rubens Barrichello and move second with 323 grand prix appearances. However, Raikkonen's continued F1 career keeps him clear on 341.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 195
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 187
3. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 113
4. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 108
5. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) – 104

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 303
2. Red Bull – 291
3. McLaren – 163
3. Ferrari – 163
5. Alpine – 77

Lewis Hamilton explained that he is still feeling the after-effects of coronavirus after producing an incredible fightback at the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Hamilton, who started on pole as he chased a 100th Formula One race win in his stellar career, had to charge up the field after a mistake following a restart – a red flag having come out after Valtteri Bottas caused an early crash.

Five drivers were forced to retire early, with Bottas handed a five-place grid penalty for the next grand prix in Belgium at the end of August, but by the time the remaining competitors had finished a formation lap, the rain which had been around at the start had cleared and the track was dry.

Hamilton, however, elected not to change his tyres, so started on his own from the grid while the others pitted. By the time he had rectified his mistake he was last, but a mighty effort saw him clinch third place behind Sebastian Vettel and unlikely winner Esteban Ocon.

The seven-time world champion now leads Max Verstappen, who finished 10th after suffering damage in the earlier crash, in the standings, though Hamilton was handed a further boost late on Sunday when Vettel was retrospectively disqualified for not having enough fuel left in his car at the end of the race. Aston Martin announced they plan to appeal that decision.

However, during the podium presentation, Hamilton looked visibly exhausted and even struggled to hold up the bottle of champagne handed to him. He then saw Mercedes' team doctor and missed some of his post-race media duties.

"I'm ok, had real big dizziness and everything got a bit blurry on the podium," Hamilton, who contracted COVID-19 in December last year, told a news conference.

"I've been fighting all year really with staying healthy after what happened at the end of last year and it's still a battle.

"I haven't spoken to anyone about it, but I think [the effects of covid are] lingering. I remember the effects of when I had it and training has been different since then. The level of fatigue you get is different and it's a real challenge.

"I continue to train and prepare the best way I can. Today, who knows what it is? Maybe it's hydration, I don't know, but I've definitely not had this experience. Had something similar at Silverstone but this is way worse."

When asked why he did not to pit at the end of the formation lap, Hamilton said: "Through the formation lap I was just giving the team information. I mean, it was dry through all the corners and I kept telling them 'it's dry, dry, dry, dry' but they said just to stay out.

"I don't really understand but I'm sure it's definitely a mistake from us all but we win and lose as a team and we bear the burden of the mistake together and we just keep fighting, so the team did an amazing job with the strategy, with pitstops, and I just had to make it work out there."

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff believes the team – who now lead the constructors' championship – made the right call, however.

"To be honest, I think we did absolutely the right thing," said Wolff. "As a leading car it's always difficult to take the decision.

"These things can happen – I stand absolutely behind the decision to stay out – and that's why I'm fine."

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