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



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 au­“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.

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