In the paddock: Marcus Simmons
It’s easy to see the appeal of a revival of the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, but the full implications of F1’s mooted return may take some of the shine off
“THE REQUIREMENTS OF F1 CAN DAMAGE WHAT MADE A VENUE SPECIAL IN THE FIRST PLACE”
When Niki Lauda pipped Alain Prost to victory in the 1985 Dutch Grand Prix in a Mclaren one-two, that was the end of Formula 1 at Zandvoort. Or so, for the past three decades and counting, we thought.
News that FIA race director Charlie Whiting reckons Zandvoort would need“minimal”changes to host a grand prix broke last week on autosport.com.“i think there’s great potential there in Zandvoort,”he said.“a few things need to be changed there, and there’s a great willingness to change. But I think it’s rather too early to be talking about that. They’re coming back to us with some proposals, and we’ll see purely from a circuit point of view – nothing to do with the commercial elements of it – but from a circuit safety point of view I think it could be done.
“There would be a nice long straight good enough to use DRS well, and you’d maintain the historic elements of the circuit as well. I think it would be a very nice circuit.”
So far so good. After all, any attempt to bring F1 back to its heartlands and foundation fanbase – rather than the Ecclestoneera fixation with rinsing as much money as possible out of oppressive regimes in countries with no motorsport tradition – must be applauded. But I must admit that, as a veteran of 18 visits to Zandvoort, it’s left me with mixed feelings.
But first, how has Zandvoort suddenly appeared back on the radar for F1? Owned since 1989 by Hans Ernst, it transferred in
2016 into the hands of a Dutch company by the name of Chapman Andretti Partners – no prizes for guessing who their favourite F1 team from history is… CAP is fronted by entrepreneur Menno de Jong and Bernhard van Oranje, a highly capable GT4 racer and who, as his name suggests, is a member of the Dutch royal family (King Willem-alexander is his cousin). At the same time, F1 fever that curiously failed to grip the nation during the eras of Robert Doornbos and Giedo van der Garde was in full swing thanks to the exploits of Max Verstappen. Numerous times a‘potential street circuit’– this phrase seemingly second only to‘dull Tilke track in a country you’ve never wanted to go to’on the longlists of F1 prospects over the past couple of decades – was mooted. And then Zandvoort and Assen, the latter better-known as the venue for the Dutch TT motorcycle grand prix than its car-racing heritage, moved into the frame.
Taking F1 to a circuit already in existence, thereby boosting the country’s proper motorsport infrastructure, has to be a good thing. According to reports, Zandvoort has now moved ahead of Assen into a position of prominence with F1 owner Liberty – which is also fair enough, because it’s a much cooler venue.
The initial layout was emasculated in the late 1980s because of the construction of a holiday park at the south end of the circuit. But the new extension that appeared in the late ’90s was – like the rebuild of Spa two decades earlier – thoroughly in keeping with the original feel of the circuit. It’s a great driving track, and in feel is not too dissimilar to Suzuka. Which is not particularly surprising when you consider that John Hugenholtz, who became the director at Zandvoort after the Second World War, designed the Japanese venue. Furthermore, the atmosphere is fantastic, the viewing is terrific, the staff and marshals are always friendly, and the town itself – only a 15-minute walk from the main entrance to the track – has a host of good bars and restaurants, and there always seems to be a festival of some sort going on. It is always a highlight of the year.
So why the mixed feelings about F1? Simply, what F1 does to a venue. Look at Brands Hatch. It went through years of neglect and shabbiness while the owners made vain attempts to bring back the British Grand Prix. Then, when Jonathan Palmer took over and dropped any such pretence, instead targeting prestige non-f1 series and themed days, the place blossomed and has never looked better. Donington Park just missed a demise because of an F1 folly. And, if you’ve been to Imola recently, you’ll know that it’s a venue that keeps its challenge and atmosphere precisely because it was axed from the F1 calendar after 2006.
Improvements in the name of circuit safety and to meet the requirements of F1 can damage the appeal of what made a venue special in the first place – look at the travesties of Hockenheim and the Osterreichring/a1-ring/red Bull Ring. Whiting isn’t suggesting anything as wide-ranging as those examples happening to Zandvoort, but one small extension of runoff at, say, Tarzanbocht could mean a great spectator location disappears. Also, whisper it, the racing at Zandvoort is more processional than at virtually any other circuit in Europe, thanks to the proliferation of long, medium and high-speed corners. Would some be tightened up, thereby removing part of the driving challenge?
And then there’s the road infrastructure. Getting out of Zandvoort on a Sunday evening is a nightmare. While it’s a far better idea to travel by train if you’re going to Schiphol airport, that won’t be an option for those driving home or to ferry ports. So yes, bringing a Dutch GP back to Zandvoort sounds fantastic in principle – but only if it’s to the Zandvoort we know and love, and no-one has to travel home on Sunday.