Track test - Zandvoort

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Up until 1985, Zandvoort produced some of the greatest Grands Prix of all time. Now, however, it seems like a very long time ago. Andrew Frankel reports

Photography by Andrew Yeadon

Youll need a full day at the wheel to drive from London to Zandvoort even with the tunnel and the continuous thread of motorway that now lies between Calais and the Belgian border.

It’s not, to be honest, one of the great drives. The Belgian police have no sense of humour at all while their Dutch colleagues, while happy to sympathise with the predicament that brought you to their attention, are happier still to relieve you of large quantities of Guilders or any other currency you may have to hand. Besides, as you work your way past Ostend, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, over the border and up to Breda and Rotterdam, there are few stretches quiet or straight enough to make much more than a quick squirt worthwhile.

It is, however, all worth it. After Rotterdam you duck to the left of Utrecht, skirt south of Amsterdam and head west for the coast, leaving the European motorway network for the first time just short of Haarlem, itself no more than a half-hour’s drive from the North Sea resort of Zandvoort. When you arrive, you’ll find a pretty enough town in a bucket and spade kind of way but that is not really what we’re here for.

Of all the circuits the Jaguar has visited over the last months, Zandvoort was the one with the most question marks hanging over it. We knew what we’d find at Spa and that little bar the scant outline of Rouen remained and while I hadn’t actually been to Reims before, I knew enough people who had seen its blasted remains to have a good idea of what to expect. Yet Zandvoort, somehow, was different.

There has not been a Grand Prix there since 1985 and while I knew that club racing still took place at the new version of the legendary circuit I knew too of the outraged outpouring that followed it opening. Zandvoort, it was said, had been destroyed by the changes wrought after the 1988 season. I knew the new circuit still incorporated the legendary Tarzan comer and a sizeable chunk of the straight before but what, if any of the old circuit still lay out there under the sand dunes, I would only discover upon arrival.

Above all, the old Zandvoort was a driver’s circuit. Of the 30 world championship Grands Prix held here between 1952 and 1985, all bar six were won by drivers who had been or would become world champion. At a power circuit like Monza, drivers destined never to claim the championship nevertheless topped the podium in the same period.

There is scarcely a track in the world with a rich, international history which has not paid for at least a proportion of its fame in human currency and this circuit is no different. But while certain circuits, in particular the old Spa, seem almost haunted by those who died there, no such grave feelings accompanied me as I took my first tentative look around the track. The memory of Piers Courage and Roger Williamson is unavoidable and nor should it ever be forgotten, but you do not feel weighed down by it.

I guess it was because Zandvoort has always been a happy place. Read the Grand Prix reports and you’ll be left in no doubt how valued was its place on the calendar to drivers, spectators and journalists alike. There was always a good atmosphere in among the dunes of the North Sea resort and, rather more importantly, it produced more than its fair share of great racing.

Racing started here in 1949 though it would be 1952 before an international Grand Prix was held at the track. Ascari won, as he had all bar one other race that season and repeated the feat the following year, his unbroken string of victories continuing unabated. BRM claimed its first Grande Epreuve here in 1959, Jo Bonnier fighting a titanic battle with Masten Gregory, Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss, all of whom led the race, to win the one and only Grand Prix victory of a Formula One career that started in 1956 and did not conclude until 1971.

The 1960s saw more great racing at Zandvoort and more significant events too, like the debut of the Lotus 25 and Porsche’s first and only purpose built Grand Prix car, both of which were first seen in the Zandvoort paddock in 1962. It was the same race that gave Graham Hill his first Grand Prix victory and set him on the mad to the championship. Five years later, the Lotus 49 would win on its debut here, in the hands of Jim Clark. Zandvoort, to me, however was and always will be a child of the ’70s. Those who were there in 1971 saw one of the greatest races ever to appear on the Grand Prix stage. It involved just two people, Jacky Ickx and Pedro Rodriguez, both of whom could be relied upon entirely to perform miracles at the first sign of rain. That year it poured at Zandvoort and these two, famed more for their exploits in sports cars than Grand Prix machinery, put on a show no-one present would ever forget.

From the start, the Ickx Ferrari 312132 and Rodriguez BRM P160 simply drove out of sight of the rest of the field despite the fact that the duel between them was unceasing; such exploits always result in slower lap times. Before long they were lapping solid mid-field performers as if they were no-hope amateurs, while each, at the same time, never lost the opportunity to dive inside his opponent at Tarzan, the infamous corner at the end of Zandvoort’s tumultuous straight. They were the two greatest wet-weather drivers of their era and, that day, they lapped every other car on the track. Sadly, it was the weather that settled the race as surely as it created it. The rain eased off, allowing a line that was merely damp to emerge and that was all Ickx needed to allow the torque and traction of his Ferrari to tell over the BRM.

Four years later, Zandvoort was back in the history books as a man presumed by many to be a public school idiot with a death wish drove to victory for a team run seemingly by upper-class twits. Yet victory was won not simply by James Hunt’s virtuoso driving but also thanks to Hesketh’s outstanding tactics. And once Hunt had appeared on the podium, flanked by two vanquished works Ferrari drivers, the critics fell silent. It had been the first Grand Prix victory scored by an Englishman for four years.

But this is not my overriding memory of Zandvoort. That came a further four years later when Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari 312T4, after an unsatisfactory performance in practice, lined up sixth on the grid. That day, Gilles was in one of those moods. It was clear from the moment the lights turned green that he would either win the race or destroy the car in the attempt. At the exit oldie first comer he was second.

To be fair, it took Gilles 10 more laps to find a way past Alan Jones’s fleet-footed Williams FW07. As ever at Zandvoort, the only conventional way to Pass was to dive up the inside at Tarzan and this tactic was getting Villeneuve nowhere against the doughty Australian. Bored with this approach he elected, on lap 11, to drive right around the outside of the Williams instead. It was a jaw-felling manoeuvre, one which left crowd, journalists and Jones gasping. More was to follow.

Gilles led for 35 laps, Jones never far away but quite unable to reclaim his lead. Then, the Ferrari picked up a slow puncture in a rear tyre. In the cockpit, Villeneuve sensed increasing oversteer but put it down to the pounding he’d been giving his slicks. Once, however, it stepped out too far, clouting a kerb and pitching the Ferrari into a spin at over 140mph. It spun on the track, it spun on the grass and, as it did so, so Villeneuve was looking around, figuring out when he would be able to catch it and down changing through the box all the while. At the appropriate moment he popped the clutch and rocketted up the road after the Williams. The tyre, however, was having none of it and exploded at over 170mph as the Ferrari passed the pits. The rest, Villeneuve hanging onto the three-wheeled car, spinning it deliberately off the track at Taman and then hammering the remains around another entire lap to bring it back as wreckage to the pits, is the stuff of motorsport legend. Jones droned on to an unchallenged victory.

At the time, no-one knew the 1985 race would be Zandvoort’s Last Grand Prix, but our man Jenks, on typically prescient form in his final race report from Holland, saw the writing all too clearly scrawled on the wall:

“Looking around Zandvoort, the amenities are woefully lacking while much of it could do with a coat of paint but it all costs money. The circuit is about 10 years behind the accepted standards and the owners do not have the money to rebuild things. It will be a pity if it slips away into disuse as it is a nice, friendly place that invariably produces some exciting racing…”

It was, peculiarly, another journalist who decided the fate of that final Zandvoort GP. His name was Herbert Volker and his great friend was a disillusioned Niki Lauda who had announced his retirement a fortnight earlier at his home Grand Prix in Austria. Outqualified and outraced all season by his team-mate Alain Prost and without a hope of defending his championship, the Austrian was going through the motions but not much more. Volker was appalled by the news and made his feelings dear. Niki decided, much as Villeneuve had back in ’79, that he was going to win the race, or blow his engine to bits in the attempt. His lowly 10th place on the grid did nothing to deter him for he was not doing it for himself He couldn’t care less; he would do it for Herbert.

And so he did, driving with all the indomitable authority that only a combination of his rare talent and some 15 years experience in Formula One could bring. And for once he had the measure of his team-mate, rarely if ever driving significantly more quickly but timing his pitstop to perfection, making the most of the traffic and exploiting the advantage to the all when Prost was delayed for just a few seconds by a misthreaded wheel nut. In the closing stages, Prost hounded Lauda’s McLaren but the positions of these two, who had together won more Grands Prix than all the other drivers on the track put together, remained unchanged. As the flag came down on Zandvoort’s Grand Prix career, just 0.2sec split the McLarens.

Most of the circuit still survives, with Tarzan and the delightful Hugenholtzbocht remaining in their original form and used to this day. But where the old track twisted away up to the legendary Scheivlak, now it spears right into a series of amusing but hardly challenging tight corners. We were able to persuade the circuit staff to unlock the gate between the new and the old and drove the Jaguar up through the high speed swerves that so defined this circuit until, without warning, the track simply stopped, as if a celestial cleaver had sliced it in two. Beyond now stands a holiday village of doubtful architectural merit.

Zandvoort is, without doubt, worth a visit. The staff at the track are helpful and friendly to a fault and eager to make clear that plans exist to return the circuit to something approaching its former glory by incorporating almost all the surviving track and creating a loop back to the start of the main straight. And you only have to look at the unmarked, brand new tyres that make up the wall at Tarzan to know that money is probably no longer a problem. I was allowed to spend the entire day blasting around the new track on my own for no particular purpose other than because I wanted to and when they learned that we were merely taking photographs rather than testing, they insisted on waiving the ridiculously modest £120 track fee.

There have been other circuits on this tour which have been more challenging to drive, more thought provoking to visit. Zandvoort’s appeal lies no longer in the thrill of a lap, nor of the thought of those who made their names immortal here. Zandvoort is about the simple joy of motor racing, a place where raw talent always counted for more than mere horsepower, where the stars of the days were allowed to shine ceaselessly. It was almost always a happy place and the feel-good factor remains. If you go, don’t spend too much time hacking around the new track; it’s fun but it’s now just another circuit. Borrow the key to the gate instead and go out towards Scheivlak. Climb the tallest dune you can find and look down at the old track and let the imagination fill in the gaps. Then, and only then, will you have even an inkling of what made this place so special to so many of the Grand Prix community and what a bitter blow it must have been when it all came to so sudden an end.

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