F1 leader Verstappen returns to his Orange Army at the Dutch GP

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Formula One leader Max Verstappen returns home to his Orange Army of fans at the Dutch Grand Prix this weekend, with another world title looming ominously and a different prize already in hand.

The 24-year-old Dutchman was surprised to be made official in the Order of Orange-Nassau, a high-ranking merit of the Dutch royal family.

“It was something really special, also for the whole family, a very nice moment,” Verstappen said on Thursday. “You don’t expect things like this to happen to you.”

Less surprising will be a second victory in a row at the Zandvoort track, just outside Amsterdam.

When he won last year, his admirers included the Dutch King Willem-Alexander. Now all those mere mortals will greet you like a world champion.

“I mean, it was already amazing last year,” Verstappen said. “Amazing atmosphere, there will be a lot of orange around so I’m looking forward to the weekend.”

Even at 330 kilometers per hour (205 mph) with a racing helmet on, Verstappen is still up against the orange horde.

“You see the people in front of you, they’re having a little party,” he said. “When you’re driving they’re also cheering you on, and I’m just going to try to enjoy it.”

However, Verstappen’s army like to set off flares, and the thick orange smoke billowing over the tracks has been a concern.

“Maybe too many flares sometimes. He was getting a bit smelly in the car,” Haas driver Mick Schumacher said. “And the visibility was decreasing.”

When Verstappen won at Zandvoort last year, he battled to retake the title lead from Lewis Hamilton in fierce competition all the way to the finish.

This year is very much Verstappen’s title to throw away.

He leads Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez by 93 points and Ferrari’s increasingly dispirited Charles Leclerc by 98. Hamilton hasn’t even won a race and is 138 points behind Verstappen in sixth place.

Another win would take Verstappen to 10 wins this season and equal his total from last year.

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Verstappen’s supremacy is such that, in the last two races, he has won from 10th in Hungary and 14th in Belgium with possibly the safest driving of his career.

He thinks Zandvoort may be less suitable for the Red Bull car than Spa and therefore the competition could be closer.

“Spa was amazing for us and I think also better than expected. Here too a lot of downforce is applied to the car, completely different track layout, less straight line speed,” he said.

They share nine world titles and 135 wins, but Hamilton and Fernando Alonso still needed to recover after last weekend’s Belgian GP incident.

Overtaking Alonso on lap 1, Hamilton hit the side of Alonso’s Alpine, sending Hamilton’s Mercedes flying. Alonso felt that Hamilton had not given him enough space and ranted.

“What an idiot to close the door from the outside,” Alonso said. “This guy only knows how to drive and start first.”

Hamilton accepted blame and said he would have spoken to Alonso about it, until he learned of Alonso’s radio explosion.

“I know that’s how things feel in the heat of the moment, but it’s good to know how you feel about me,” said seven-time champion Hamilton.

This is how the two-time F1 champion Alonso apologized to Hamilton at the Dutch GP, and Hamilton’s Mercedes team posted a photo of them together on Twitter, with both smiling and Alonso holding a Mercedes cap.

“I have absolutely no problem with him and I have great respect for him. I apologize,” Alonso said. “The heat of the moment, the adrenaline, finally fighting for the top two, the top three, made me say comments that he shouldn’t say.”

Still, Alonso, 41, believes the incident with Hamilton was exaggerated.

“He is a champion, he is a legend of our time. And then when you say something, and I’m sorry to repeat it, against a British driver, there’s a lot of media involvement,” Alonso said. “They have been saying a lot of things to Checo (Pérez), to Carlos (Sainz Jr.), to me. If you say something to a Latin driver, everything is a little more fun. When you say something to others, it’s a bit more serious.”

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Alonso joked that now he will be “very quiet on the radio.”

Ferrari have made many questionable strategic calls this season, and while Sainz accepts the team’s mistakes, he says observers have been too harsh.

“There were many times during the year where we made the right calls and no one came to say, ‘Oh, you made the right call,’ or congratulate us,” he said. “But on the other hand, when there have been two or three, let’s say they are bad decisions in hindsight, there has been massive criticism.”

Ferrari made another bizarre decision at Spa by calling up Charles Leclerc for new tires with one lap remaining, a futile bid for the fastest lap point that fell through.

Leclerc has seen victories nailed down at the Monaco GP and British GP disappear, where team calls reduced him from a dominant position to fourth and Sainz won at Silverstone.

At the Hungarian GP before the mid-season break, another confusing decision on tire strategy cost Leclerc when he was in a dominant position and finished sixth.

Sainz feels that the spotlight on Ferrari magnifies mistakes.

“When I was at McLaren, or at Toro Rosso or at Renault, when there was a big mistake in strategy, no one came to point it out and criticize you as much as they do at Ferrari,” he said. “This is a fact that I think everyone can agree on. . . at Ferrari, everything seems bigger. The victory is bigger, the mistake is bigger.”

Ferrari hasn’t won the drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 or the constructors’ crown since 2008.

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