Reflections in the sands of Zandvoort

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The morning after the race the sun came out and I took time off to read the report of the Dutch Grand Prix in Motor Sport for August, 1970. The date was virtually the same, and I read such passages as “there was seldom a dull moment, for apart from the 24 competitors making the pit road more crowded than at Brands Hatch, and that is saying something, there was excitement in all directions… when Rodriguez flew off into the undergrowth”. This year the pit lane had been widened by 40 centimetres by moving the guard rails separating the pits from the track. Between the outer and inner guard rails, which form a narrow island from which mechanics give pit signals, you have to have room for people to stand and the extra 40 centimetres in the pit lane was squeezed out by reducing this standing room to a minimum.

Unfortunately the Grand Prix cars have grown wider since last year so the situation was back to square one. Last year Rodriguez crashed his BRM because a Dunlop tyre failed, this year Regazzoni crashed his Ferrari because a Firestone tyre failed. Surprising how things stay the same, just the names change. Another quote says “Timekeeping was being assiduously done to two places of decimals by means of a beam mechanism, but as any timing system is only as faultless as the people operating it and using the given data, the outcome at the end of practice left a lot to be desired.” For 1971 repeat as for 1970, for this year there seemed to be a reluctance to recognise the letter T that was on some of the cars, and there appeared to be no official knowledge at all of the fact that Peterson practised with two March cars, 711/6 with an Alfa Romeo engine, and 711/2 with a Cosworth engine. His best times were, respectively, 1 min. 19.73 sec. and 1 min. 20.40 sec., and he drove the Cosworth-powered car in the race, but his position on the grid was for the time recorded with the Alfa Romeo-engined car. Had the organisation taken this into account Peterson would have been moved back from row 5 on the grid to row 8, alongside Galli, and who knows he might have become involved in someone else’s accident instead of getting clear of the pack and finishing fourth. When Andretti changed cars, after his Friday accident, everyone seemed to know and it was the time he made with the second car that counted for his grid position, not his faster Friday time.

And the weather this year on Saturday morning was awful and on race day was nearly as bad. Last year, “…the North Sea mist had covered everything and any building more than three storeys high was fast disappearing. It was an evil-looking mist and obviously did not bode well for Sunday and the whole of Zandvoort took on a heavy and gloomy atmosphere.” The gloom turned out to be worse than anyone bargained for, as Sunday saw young Piers Courage lose his life in the de Tomaso accident. Happily this year’s race did not end in such a tragedy, though many drivers had accidents. In the entry list there was no name against the number one position and when I asked why this was I was told “it is in memory of Jochen Rindt, the posthumous World Champion”. I was slightly embarrassed because I had been wondering if it was in memory of Piers Courage! Or do we just forget him, and Bruce McLaren and all the others who died last year in their pursuit of speed and sport?

The weather at Zandvoort can have a devastating effect on lap times, as I learnt in 1948 when I first went there to race. The wind can blow three ways; off the sea and across the main straight, down the main straight or up the main straight. I cannot recall a day at Zandvoort when there was no wind at all, but it must have happened at some time. With a 600-c.c. motorcycle and sidecar outfit gear ratios were all-important, there was no reserve of power to cover up wrong calculations, and on that first visit to Zandvoort I recall that we had sprockets and chains all laid out in the van right up to the time of the start and we watched the flags on the grandstand to tell us which engine sprocket to fit.

It was rather in the way that today people watch the skies to decide which tyre tread and compound to use. This year during practice the wind went through 180° between Friday and Saturday practice, with the result that Saturday was a “slow day”, after the rain had stopped that is, and there was nearly two seconds difference between comparable lap times on Friday and Saturday. The point of this is that on Saturday Walker got the turbine-Lotus round in 1 min. 21.83 sec., which meant that he would have done 1 min. 19.83 sec. on Friday had the car been ready. I am not saying that this would have “caused a flap in the hen-house”, but it would have put the turbine car half-way up the grid instead of at the back, and talking of the Lotus-turbine car and Walker, his accident was one of those unfortunate mistakes that every driver can make, but few are prepared to admit.

In these days of Grand Prix drivers being idols who can do no wrong, so that any accident has to have a long and complicated quasi-scientific explanation involving all sorts of technical jargon, it was refreshing to talk to Walker after the race. He just looked very sheepish and said: “I made a stupid mistake.” From the back of the grid he was galloping through the tail-enders, really pleased with the way the smooth torque of the turbine and the 4-wheel-drive were dealing with the appalling conditions, and was actually in tenth place at the end of the fifth lap. On the four previous laps he had arrived at the end of the long straight in company with a bunch of cars and they had all braked safely and early from their 150 m.p.h., but on lap 5 Walker had got away from the others and was on his own and he braked too late, locked up the wheels and went straight on through the fence. It was all as simple as that.

Dave Walker is a racing driver of the same breed as the late Paul Hawkins, and, like a grizzly bear among the fawns, the deer, the antelopes and the giraffes in the “Native Park”, they keep my sense of proportion right. At the moment he is in the middle of Chapman’s well-known Team Shambles, winning races for them in F3 in fine style, showing great promise with the turbine car, and being full of enthusiasm for this interesting new project, and when neither are available being put into a Lotus 72, so it’s not surprising that he makes mistakes. Like “Catchpole” in the Autosport cartoon, “I’m a Dave Walker man myself”, and I hope Chapman gets him into the right slot soon and keeps him there.

Later in the race Regazzoni slid off at the end of the straight but instead of going head-on into the safety fences he went in at an angle and was able to reverse out and continue racing. Now an important point is that round the outside of this bend there are no guard rails, only these wire mesh fences mounted on wooden posts. Some people want steel guard rails all round the whole circuit and if they had had their way Walker would have been very badly hurt and Regazzoni’s Ferrari would have been too badly damaged to continue racing. Talking to John Hugenholtz, the Zandvoort track manager, he told me how the development of these wire mesh safety fences came about. In 1952 there was a bad accident at the Grenzlandring, just over the Dutch border in Germany, and he and a group of Germans got together and realised that there must be a way of stopping an out-of-control car. They carried out experiments on a German airfield projecting a car into various forms of fencing at various angles until the present form of square mesh was evolved. He is the first to admit that it is not the complete answer, but he does insist that it is a good one and that steel guard rails on steel posts is not the complete answer. As with so many things in life, there is a time and place for everything, and the end of the Zandvoort straight is the place for wire mesh fencing.

We talked of circuit development and racing in general, and how the Zandvoort circuit has been going from strength to strength since 1960/61, and that in spite of all the rumours its future is safe and sound, and looked back on the first race held on the Zandvoort circuit in 1948. The Dutch had just built the circuit and knew nothing of race organisation so they asked the British Racing Drivers’ Club to organise the first race, which they did. I enquired why the BRDC had been asked, and Hugenholtz pointed out that in those days Germany was still held down Internationally and the Dutch were not too friendly with them, as can be imagined. Their other neighbours were the Belgians, and there has never been too much love lost between the Dutch and the Belgians at the best of times, as I know from the experience of living in Belgium for some years. The relationship between Holland and England has been very good since the sixteenth century and having been liberated by the English army in 1944/45 it was better than ever, so the BRDC was the obvious choice.

I missed that first race, but I was there for the second Zandvoort race a week or two later, and when I mentioned this Hugenholtz pointed out that while I was at the second race on the Zandvoort circuit it was actually the third race at Zandvoort, for they had held a race meeting in 1939, long before the present circuit was even thought about. He produced some 1939 copies of the Dutch motoring magazine, De Auto, dated June 1st, 1939, and June 8th, 1939, and on both the headline on the cover reads “De Prijs van Zandvoort”, one issue being full of pre-race news, the other containing a complete report, the races being held on June 3rd, 1939. It was a National meeting of short races for saloon cars and sports cars and the circuit was roughly a figure of eight round the streets on the edge of the town, right past the present entrance to the Zandvoort circuit.

Very little has changed and we did a lap of the original Zandvoort circuit, an event that took place mainly by reason of the enthusiasm of the Mayor of Zandvoort at the time. On the organising committee was J. H. van Haaren, who has only recently retired from the Dutch GP organisation, and among the race winners was P. J. Nortier (BMW 328), who is now a top member of the FIA. The meeting was attended by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and had government approval as well as that of the local town council. During the meeting there were demonstration laps by Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union, which must have excited the Dutch enthusiasts. Manfred von Brauchitsch drove a 1939 Mercedes-Benz Type 163, supercharged 3-litre V12, and Hans Stuck drove the 1937 all-enveloping streamlined 16-cylinder Auto-Union record car, both of which must have been a stirring sight at a meeting where the most exciting entry was a production 328 BMW sports car.

Piet Nortier averaged 83.96 k.p.h. for the 45 laps of the fastest race of the day in a time of 1 hr. 13 min. 14.8 sec., the circuit being 2.28 kilometres to the lap. This was not only the first motor race to be held at Zandvoort but the first official road race in Holland and was undoubtedly the inspiration for the Dutch Grand Prix, of which the very wet 1971 event was the 19th.

Still being very Dutch orientated in our conversation we fell to discussing the appearance of Gijs van Lennep in his first Grand Prix race and the fact that he drove just the sort of race that we expected from this very level-headed Dutchman. Having seen him drive in sports-car races tor many years, at one time sharing Porsches with his elder brother David, and recently as part of the Martini-Porsche team, it was no surprise that he drove the 1970 Surtees car in a sound and sensible manner, finishing the race comfortably in eighth place, the last of the Firestone runners and ahead of all the Goodyear runners, including three World Champions, as the Dutch were quick to point out.

John Surtees was more than pleased with the whole deal he made with the Dutch people concerned, and they were equally pleased, for the TS7 was splendidly prepared, gave no trouble and van Lennep “kept it on the island” and stayed out of other people’s accidents. So often these arrangements to lend or hire a car to a local lad turn out to be disasters, either due to the car being a tired old thing, badly prepared, or the local lad being a bit of an idiot and breaking it or crashing it, so it was a change to see a deal go through that was satisfactory to all concerned.

Gijs van Lennep is one of three brothers of a family involved in shipbuilding, which in Holland is no surprise, and Hugenholtz first met him when, as a young lad of 11 years, van Lennep asked if he could drive his home-made car up and down the entrance road of the Zandvoort circuit. It was a sort of three-wheeled Go-Kart with a small 2-stroke engine driving the back wheel, and the fair-headed young Dutch boy probably dreamed of taking part in his own Grand Prix one day as he drove up and down the entrance road on his home-made car. Van Lennep won second place in the Targa Florio earlier this year, and first place at Le Mans only the week before the Dutch Grand Prix, so the Dutch public had become very aware of motor racing on a much more personal level, which may have accounted for 11,000 spectators turning up to watch practice and 45,000 on race day in spite of the appalling weather.

On the other hand a large part of the reason for this attendance, which made the Grand Prix break even, was the cancellation of the Belgian GP two weeks before and a German public holiday over the weekend of the Dutch event. Not everyone can afford to go to all the Grand Prix races and many German spectators who might have gone to Francorchamps went to Zandvoort instead.

During the race there was a certain amount of umbrage taken in some quarters because Galli’s wrecked March was not moved from where it had crashed, but short of stopping the race it would not have been reasonable to expect a group of marshals to attempt to drag it away from the edge of the track. It was right in the line of anyone else locking up their wheels on the greasy track on the approach to the corner and it would have been a brave man who was prepared to stand at that spot. The wrecked car was quite visible to all the drivers and it was obviously going to stay where it was, so if anyone was going to try any heroics with their brakes they could see all the possibilities quite clearly.

At the party given by Shell on the night before the race Regazzoni should have been presented with the GPDA award for the best newcomer in Grand Prix racing in 1970, but the GPDA organisation fell down and the unfortunate Swiss driver did not even get a GPDA handshake, which was all rather poor. It is interesting to recall that exactly one year ago Regazzoni, Cevert and Gethin made their debuts in Grand Prix racing, at the Dutch Grand Prix, and since then the first two have made progress, while Gethin seems to be dragging his feet.

Finally, one must mention that BRM started three cars, and all three finished the race, in 2nd, 6th and 7th places, and all going strongly.—D. S. J.