Formula 1 returns to Zandvoort this week for the first Dutch Grand Prix in 36 years, and boy, does Stefano Domenicali and his team sure need it to be a good one. The debacle at Spa would have been a disaster at any time, but in a year when the pandemic has forced another hasty reshuffle of the schedule and a drop from the planned 23 races to 22, the (non-)Belgian GP is a disastrous blow for the commercial rights holder and threatens to hurt F1 further where it feels it the most. F1 is always about the money.
That’s why I’d be amazed if those poor souls who waited so patiently in atrocious conditions, that absolutely were unsuitable for motor racing, get a sniff of a refund. Domenicali has a light, friendly touch in the paddock and for the TV cameras, but we hear F1 is not the happiest or easiest place to work under his watch. You don’t climb to where he did at Ferrari, run Lamborghini or land the top job in F1 working for hardboiled US suits for whom the bottom line is all that counts by being a touchy-feely softie. I might be wrong. Perhaps the PR disaster, which in its perceived cynicism only just falls short of the US GP tyre travesty of 2005, might enforce F1 to do the right thing. But I won’t hold my breath.
[As I’ve written that paragraph, a press release from F1 has just landed in my inbox. Have pigs learnt to fly? No. It’s the announcement of a broadcast partnership extension in France. Bully for Canal+. They must be delighted at the timing.]
Banked corners under construction at Zandvoort in 2019
Robin van Lonkhuijsen
Instead, we turn to Zandvoort, surely the most unlikely F1 return since, well, Imola last year. But this one isn’t an any-port-in-a-storm fallback to an old, outdated favourite driven by a needs-must emergency; instead, the circuit in the sand dunes is back purely because of the significant pulling power of the Max Factor and the Verstappen ‘orange army’ that has added a welcome dash of colour and Klaxon-blaring noise to F1 grandstands all over the world. F1 wasn’t about to miss milking Max’s moment, and credit too to the circuit co-owner Bernhard van Oranje and his investors for seizing the day. Like Brands Hatch, which hosted its final grand prix a year after Zandvoort’s apparent 1985 swansong, this was a track long considered lost in the slipstream of the expansive (and expensive) autodromes that have since sprouted in countries with zero connection to motor sport and its rich heritage. Cut almost in half during the circuit’s financial crisis – holiday homes now sit on what used to be the second half of the lap – the modern, compact 2.64-mile, 14-turn track is a shadow of its popular, sweeping and super-fast predecessor while at the same time still managing to be a relic, in relative F1 terms. Whatever, it’s lovely to have Zandvoort back.
But will the revisions be enough to change the perception it’s outdated in the modern world? The developments include banking at the Hugenholtz left-hander behind the paddock and more crucially the 18-degree oval-style new final corner designed as a special DRS zone to slingshot cars down the start/finish and encourage overtaking into Tarzan. Let’s see if it works. Late-braking heroics into the 180-degree first corner were always hairy, Alain Prost famously overcooking it when his Renault slithered into Nelson Piquet’s Brabham back in 1983. Overtaking is expected to be no less tricky this weekend, although more northern European rain might open up the action (as long as it doesn’t close it down again).