Zandvoort circuit: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

Zandvoort, the circuit in the sand dunes -- a great track with the best corner name in F1. 'Tarzan' is so much better that 'Turn 1'.

In recent years there’s been a spate of new circuits in world championship use, and I mean tracks not merely new to Formula One, but tracks new, period, built in unlikely places and paid for with government money, specifically with the intention of raising a country’s profile and boosting its tourist appeal.

Thus we have embraced Sepang in Malaysia, Sakhir in Bahrain, and Shanghai. All have been designed by one man, Hermann Tilke, who is also responsible for the reprofiling — some would say emasculation — of Hockenheim.

In paddock chat you can refer to these ‘new generation’ circuits as ‘Tilke 1’, ‘Tilke 2’, for each uses a formula which eschews any ultrafast, testing, corners and attempts — very necessarily in this era — to offer at least a whiff of an overtaking opportunity. Each one — given that money is no object — has state-of-the-art ‘facilities’ beyond the dreams of traditional circuits of long standing, such as Imola and Silverstone, and therefore the drivers, spurred by the powers-that-be, tend to be gushing in their praise of them.

Publicly, anyway. Alain Prost, still a man who delights in irreverence, offered his own thoughts earlier this year: “People say the drop in F1 ‘s popularity is because of Schumacher winning all the races. I don’t think it’s only that. It’s a bit of everything. People seem to have less character, less personality.., the drivers are afraid to speak the truth, and the fans smell that.

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“When they were asked about the track in Bahrain, for example, they all said to the press that it was fantastic. Well, I’ve talked to 20-30 per cent of them, and they all told me it was shit!”

Still, Bahrain, like other ‘Tilkes’, takes in the long-straight-followed-by-slow-corner sequence so vital in the design of any track if passing manoeuvres are to be attempted. This isn’t rocket science, as anyone who ever went to Zandvoort will tell you. If you watched at Tarzan, the wide, multi-line, 180-degree right at the end of the long pit straight there, you saw a whole season’s racing in one afternoon. The entry to Tarzan made you acutely aware of what men in cars can do.

Sadly, F1 deserted Zandvoort in 1985, but to this day I hold it was the best circuit for racing I ever saw.

Nor was it conceived by a computer. During the occupation of Holland Nazi gun emplacements in the sand dunes were linked by a series of service roads, and after the war these formed the basis of part of a new race circuit designed by John Hugenholtz, later responsible for Jarama and Suzuka.

In the hazy distance you’d see the cars exit Bos Uit, a long crocodile on the horizon, then begin to splinter, reds and yellows and blues fanning out and darting across the road, as Tarzan rushed up to meet them. At that stage it was a matter of staying off the brakes as long as you dared.

This was a stretch of racetrack to concentrate the mind. I remember Patrick Tambay talking about pit signals in 1982. “I found myself acting like a computer,” he explained. “You’re doing close to 200mph, but you know where your pit is — so you know that board is for you. You see it and store the info away. You can’t do anything more with it immediately because here’s Tarzan, and you can’t miss your braking point. Then, out of the corner, your pit signal comes back to you and you register what it all meant.”

For spectators, too, it was exhilarating — but scary. I invariably got through a lot of cigarettes during the course of a Dutch Grand Prix. Once in a while, as with Riccardo Patrese’s Arrows in 1979, you’d get a complete brake failure. In 1980 the front suspension of Derek Daly’s Tyrrell collapsed under braking, and two years later it happened to René Arnoux’s Renault. In every case the car went straight on, through the inadequate run-off area and head-on into the tyre wall. Always the impact was of shocking violence, and old notebooks reveal a sudden deterioration in my writing each time.

Somehow those three all walked away, but Zandvoort had some truly dark days. In 1970, my first time there, I remember clearly that pillar of black smoke twisting into a grey sky, scanning my lap chart and realising that Siffert and Courage were missing, and seeing Jo in the pits later, which meant it was Piers; remember, too, the joyless face of Jochen Rindt on the podium afterwards. And three years later it happened again, to Roger Williamson.

Any track with some bottle-age inevitably has a residue of tragedy among the lees, but more often than not Zandvoort was all pleasure, with a unique atmosphere, redolent of barrel-organ music, chips with mayonnaise and fresh, blustery, North Sea winds.

As well as providing a race of unusual sensation, it had also the knack of turning up an unexpected result. In 1959 the spoils were secured by Jo Bonnier in a BRM P25, the first GP victory for the team and the only one of the Swede’s long career. Wolfgang von Trips scored his first GP success there. So did Graham Hill and James Hunt. Jimmy Clark took the race in 1967 (his fourth GP win at the track), bestowing the revolutionary Lotus 49 with a fairy tale debut, and three years later the equally innovative 72 won for the first time, in the hands of Rindt.

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Think of Zandvoort, and all kinds of images come back: the mesmeric fight in the rain between Jacky Ickx and Pedro Rodriguez in 1971 — a ‘Firestone grand prix’ in which the Goodyear-shod Tyrrell of Jackie Stewart was lapped five times; Hunt closing the door on John Watson’s Penske at the exit of Tarzan in ’76, and getting away with it; Hunt trying the same with Andretti a year later — and not getting away with it; Mario, fibreglass burning, leading Ronnie Peterson in the year of the Lotus 79; Gilles Villeneuve passing Alan Jones on the outside of Tarzan, a spectacular prelude to his fabled three-wheeled return to the pits in ’79; Jones taking the lead from Prost in ’81, then losing it again within seconds; the clash between Prost and Nelson Piquet — aspiring world champions — in ’83; the memorable closing laps of the last race, with Niki Lauda holding off Prost for the final victory of his career.

Hugenholtz died in 1995, and it’s our loss that his influence is gone today, for he was a master of imaginative race circuit design — albeit one, of course, operating in a very different time from Tilke, a time when panache, even risk, were considered to be essential ingredients of GP racing, when the overwhelming considerations were other than safety and ease of TV transmission.

“Probably a lot of today’s TV viewing public doesn’t remember some of the older circuits, and how great they were,” laments Patrick Head. “Like the Osterreichring, like Kyalami, like Zandvoort. These days I quite like Monaco because, although it’s a pain to get around and full of posers, at least it’s different from all the others. Increasingly the tracks are becoming interchangeable. That’s a great shame. What is happening at the moment is very short-sighted.”

Amen to that. Even 20 years ago it was becoming all too apparent that Zandvoort, with its primitive facilities, could not long survive in the ‘corporate era’. Caviar was coming; chips and mayonnaise were on their way out.